The heating in my Shanghai apartment went out the other day. Not a big deal, you think … its after Spring Festival so that means Spring is here, right? And who needs heating when it’s Spring, right? Not so. I guess the weather numpties here don’t have smartphones to look up “vernal equinox” on Wikipedia. The temperature in Shanghai has been hovering in the single digits Celsius, a system of measurement designed to make things feel much colder, farther and heavier than they really are.
So I called the building management on the intercom. The conversation went something like this:
Me: My heater isn’t working.
Voice on the Other End: Mphrp grrb fizzle brap
Me: Oh, OK. Thank you
It was good to know that Charlie Brown’s teacher was able to find employment after those annoying cartoons ran out. But I was no closer to having a solution to my heater problem
I have a box of tools here, so I took them out, hoping that inspiration would strike. Pliers, screwdrivers, a hammer, a thingamajig and a whosawhatsis, all critical tools for the mechanically inept. But I got a whole lotta nuthin’. They stared back at me as if to say, “Why are you disturbing us. Put us back, you might hurt yourself. And hey, its cold in here … fix the damn heat!”
I went back to stare at my thermostat to see if I could figure out the problem. That’s what my father always did. “Let’s take a look and see what we’ve got here,” he would say whenever something didn’t work. I remember looking up at him, awestruck, this Superhero with a toolbelt of Batman-like complexity and a look of steely confidence. He didn’t use the word “thingamajig” … he called things by their proper names. To me, a tape measure was something to pull out and watch snap back. To him, it was a tool that gave him useful information when he was taking a look and seeing what he’d got there.
So I stared at the thermostat, to see what I had there, but again, nothing. It turned out that I was staring at the water meter. No wonder I didn’t get anything. I finally found the thermostat and glared at it. I started to analyze it – small, beige box, squarish, a few buttons, some numbers that seemed to be changing, getting smaller. I pushed the “plus” button, assuming that it might adjust the temperature higher. It turns out that the thermostat was already set at a temperature more appropriate for firing pottery, so I shrewdly guessed that it wasn’t the setting that was the problem.
I remembered that my dad would always open things – the hood of the car, the back of the stove – and that seemed to get him where he was going. I looked for a little door or something. Nothing. That sucker was sealed up tighter that David Koch’s wallet at a Hillary Clinton fundraiser.
Dad used to talk to things, “C’mon, you stupid bolt, loosen up!” So I talked to it, “Hey … um, thermostat. This is Kent. Your renter. Um … I’m freezing my patootie off out here, how about coughing up some heat.” Nothing. Then I noticed that the thermostat was made by Siemens … so I tried out some of my rusty high school German: “Hallo. Hans geht ins Kino und Monika sind im boot.” (Hello. Hans went to the theater and Monica is in the boat.) Again, nothing. It seems I had the cheaper model of thermostat, the one without the human speech processor.
Maybe the problem wasn’t with the thermostat … maybe something was blocking the heating ducts. One time, when I was a kid, I remember my dad pulling a dead (and very dry) bird out of the dryer duct. Shanghai is decidedly lacking in wildlife. We’ve got some birds, rats, feral taxi drivers, but that’s about all. I decided that I did not want to find some mummified Shanghai taxi guy curled up in the fetal position in my heating register, so I didn’t bother looking.
So I did what I usually did when things didn’t work. “OK, two can play at that game … if you won’t work,” I told it, “I’m just going to shut you off.” I had to go out of town anyway so I just turned it off. Maybe it needed a vacation, some me-time; get away from the rat race, the constant demands to produce warmth and comfort for people, people who never thanked you, never said how much they appreciated the hard work.
I returned a couple of days later to an even colder apartment (concrete walls in China are constructed with some strange technology that radiates cold) and absentmindedly turned on the heat. It was about an hour later – when things were decidedly warmer – that I remembered the problems earlier and went back to the thermostat to check. Yes, it was warmer. I felt the air blowing out of the heating registers … yes, it was truly warm, almost hot (I then went back to the thermostat to turn down the setting to “turkey basting”). I had heat again.
Don’t you wish all of life could be this way? Something isn’t working, just shut it down and give it a rest. I look at my life today and there are areas where I could sure use a hard re-boot; press ctrl-alt-delete to restart things. But alas, I’m left only with more banal thingamajigs and whosawhatsis, a critical stare and a firm self-talking to. Maybe I should try it in German.
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Not so very long ago, I was sitting in a Chinese railway station awaiting my train which, like the first snowfall, the Second Coming and Godot, was taking its sweet old time. Worse still, I was experiencing a throbbing headache.
Then suddenly an announcement came over the loudspeaker system at a tone that sent aural icepicks through my eardrums: “Miffle babble gribble, mao mao mao, glizzzbo hemmat.”
I strained, along with my fellow travelers, to understand what the announcer was saying. I asked a local man sitting next to me if he understood it, but like me he found it nearly incomprehensible. Nevertheless he was able to catch something to the effect that the train to Miffle was going to be slightly glizzzbo and that passengers should mao mao mao. Meanwhile the buzz and screech of the station’s public address system seemed to announce the opening ceremonies of the Migraine Olympics getting underway in my skull.
But it wasn’t the fact that I couldn’t understand just what the heck the announcement was saying that bothered me … no, it was the simple annoying sound of it. Call it hyper sound sensitivity or Adult A.D.D. but I find it nearly impossible to concentrate when bombarded by things like this. As I sat and suffered the agonies of the damned, nowhere nearer to my destination, I wished for transportation of another sort, the ability to separate myself from the surrounding mayhem and reach a Zen-like state of calm and objectivity. Since I arrived in China many years ago, I have, on occasion, nearly reached this out-of-body state of enlightenment, only to be brought crashing down to earth because of some ear-splitting sound that seems unique to China. But I wonder still how such noise can wreak such havoc with me, knocking my choo-choo train of thought clear off its tracks. What’s more, why do I seem to be the only one with an aural fixation here?
I could catalog for you, dear friends, alphabetically and by decibel, the list of obnoxious sounds in this otherwise fair land. Travel north in the winter and listen to the chest-clearing hawk-spit of a Beijing taxi driver. Like Siegfried and Roy pulling a white tiger out of a Ming vase, northerners in China can haul a lung cookie up from the depths of their very soul. Particularly during wintertime when the coal dust hangs like carcinogen curtains, the hills are alive with the sound of mucus and I shiver to my core to hear it.
While one expects that sound systems in older railway stations and airports – many of them seemingly dating back to the Han dynasty – will not be of high quality, it seems fair to assume that those in the brand new train stations and airports dotting the land would be somewhat better. Bad assumption. While an architectural wonder, the Shanghai Pudong airport has a P.A. system that makes the announcer sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher on valium or a flatulent tuba player. The vaulted Tinker Toy ceilings play ping-pong with the sound, further frustrating the already confused traveler with echoed repetitions of garbled phrases.
The sound systems that do work in China work all too well. I am, of course, referring to those found in supermarkets and hypermarkets. The average retail shopping experience here is suffused in music, usually turned up so loud that the speakers buzz. The result is often a comical interaction between shoppers and assistants, both trying to hear each other above the din and, failing that, resorting to hand motions worthy of Marcel Marceau at a liturgical dance conference. The other day my pantomime of “where is your organic ginger?” to a shop assistant at the local market gathered quite a crowd (and, if my agent can pull it off, I will be appearing at several other local supermarkets in the Puxi area in the coming months … stay tuned for dates and times).
Many foreigners have difficulty grasping the melody of the Chinese language, the odd phonemes and tones hitting our eardrums at uncomfortable trajectories. I have been able to appreciate only some of the music of the Chinese language – the soft, womanly lisp of Suzhou natives, for example, or the marbled mumbles of the Heilongjiang industrial worker. However, here in my beloved city of Shanghai, the fingernails-on-a-blackboard dissonance a group of 53 year-old women speaking the local dialect is enough to drive me around the bend. First of all, this model of Shanghai citizen does not seem to come equipped with a volume control and yet has the Super Multi-Tasking chip installed, enabling the group of them to all talk at the same time, in escalating volume levels. Most disturbing is when a group of these ladies are working as shop assistants in the aforementioned retail environment and are in vociferous competition with the store’s sound system. The Wall of Sound this forms makes front row seats at a Screaming Death Monkeys heavy metal concert seem like an afternoon society tea at the local library.
But if I were to be brutally honest, the most unsettling sound of all in China, to my ears, is the complaining foreigner rehashing the litany of improvements they would introduce: the tourist on public sanitation; the expat commuter on traffic; members of the current US administration on currency control. If the chorus singing from the ‘What China Needs Is … ‘ hymnbook is bothersome to my ears, imagine what it must do to those of our hosts. So as for me? Guilty as charged. I hope that only the most graceful and forgiving of them are reading this post.
I was at a restaurant the other day and wanted to get the server’s attention. Now the standard etiquette at food establishments in China – particularly local ones – is that you are allowed (nay, even encouraged) to raise your voice and yell for service, yell as if you were three pints into a prime day at the Hong Kong Sevens. So, employing vocal chords that have been known to shatter glass, I shouted “Hey…xiao jie” and a young lady immediately appeared at my table.
To differentiate myself from the other louts screaming for the wait staff, I thought it wise to establish a degree of intimacy. Xiao jie (“Miss”) is too formal, and I looked to her name tag. I discovered her name was 57103. “Hmm…” I thought to myself, “this is interesting; a moniker not normally found in the ranks of the venerated Zhang’s, Wang’s and Liu’s of the lao bai xing” (literally, “old hundred names”).
How sad, in a land where naming people is such an arduous and time consuming task, to be reduced to a number. This is a minor tragedy, I thought. Chinese names are beautiful, rich in symbolism and possess a sense of history that places the bearer securely within the culture. I’m sure that the waitress’s parents took great care to choose a suitable name for their daughter. They likely searched through the family records, considered the time of her birth, and came up with a name that reflected their hopes and dreams. What infamy, then, to be reduced to number 57103.
Finding an appropriate Chinese name for a foreigner is, perhaps, even more difficult than it is for the native-born. Many opt for the easy way out – simply translating the sound of their name into Chinese phonemes, with interesting results. I knew a guy named William Wasserstrom, a name that is tough enough in English but was rendered ridiculous in Chinese: Wei Li Ya Mu – Wa Su Er Su Tu Mu. People had to take several breaths and pack a lunch to get through that name. It sounds like a Shanghainese rapper with Tourette’s Syndrome. Then, too, the characters used to render a name like that are devoid of meaning. If one were to translate old William’s name, literally, it would mean “Future Power Oh! Wood – Wow! Custom Ear Revive Earth Eye.” Frank Zappa couldn’t have named a kid worse. Most foreigners don’t mind, but if you want to belong here then you should find a “real” name.
My Chinese name was chosen by a committee formed by several of my closest Chinese friends. Their mission: to find a name that matched my personality. The most appropriate, “Donkey-Face-Monkey-Boy”, does not translate well in Chinese so instead they chose 高 德凯 or Gao Dekai. Gao is a traditional family name, but it also means “tall” and alludes to my height. De means “morality” and Kai, “victory”, which says something about my successful struggles with sin (or, more likely, pokes fun at my failures with same). In short, Gao Dekai is a nice, solid, very Chinese name.
On the other hand, some of my Chinese friends and acquaintances have been given unfortunate names in English. In the days when I was a teacher, one class boasted a Lincoln, a Washington and a Hemingway. Lincoln and Washington failed their history class, and Hemingway got a “D”’ in English Composition.
Others sport meteorological monikers: I know a Snow, a Rain and even a Breeze (and I’m acquainted with a fellow who should be named Earthquake for his ability to kill a conversation at a party). I know a Pony Wang, who fancies himself an urban cowboy, and a Moonbeam Liu which sounds rather sexy, but not for a guy, which he happens to be. Another acquaintance, Dolphin Xiu (aka “Flipper”), is exceptionally smart and happy-go-lucky — his name seems to fit. And for all I know he might like to swim and eat seafood. I had a client once whose family name was Gu and he chose the English name Green. I’ll pause a moment and let you figure that one out.
Every once in a while, my Chinese friends ask me to help choose an English name for themselves or even their child. This makes me feel very uncomfortable. The responsibility is too great and a wrong choice can mark a person with bad karma for life. I have trouble choosing a necktie, never mind something as serious as a name.
I once knew a young man surnamed Wang, who approached me one day and said: “Mr. Kent, I want you to help me pick an English name.”
“OK,” I said, my voice aquiver, “have you anything in mind?”
“Well, I like the name Satellite,” he said, with a proud grin.
“Um… ‘Satellite Wang’? Are you sure about that?” I asked.
“Yes. Satellites are very modern and are very strong. And I want to be modern and strong. Besides, my best friend said it was a good name for me.”
“Who is your best friend?” I asked, fearing the answer.
“Oh, his name is Auditorium Li.”
You know, somehow 57103 sounds like she should be counting her blessings.
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Taken while standing in line at the Hong Kong airport
Change is hard. I just moved to a new apartment in a very different part of Shanghai and, though I love my new place, the surroundings are taking some getting used to. But I now know where to get my groceries; I have my local restaurants for good dumplings; the little corner joint that sells freshly fried sesame balls on Sunday mornings; I know which stands have the best fruit (and its NOT the squinty-eyed chap that sold me that bad watermelon … yea, buddy, I’m talking about you!). So yes, I’m settling in nicely, thank you very much.
But the one thing that has NOT settled well, is where to get a haircut. Now, I hope that those of you who know me don’t consider me a vain person, at least not any more vain than the average middle-aged white guy who sees his youth slipping slowly away from him, thinking back on the “what-ifs” of life and how, as a young man, everything seemed possible and I was invincible and nothing could stop me so, naturally, I am grasping at everything I possibly can to shore up my crumbling male ego! (Er … sorry about that. Probably should have saved that for my therapist).
Anyhow, I don’t consider myself too hung up on my appearance – I like to look good, but I know that the good Lord only provided me with a limited amount raw material so I tend to lower my expectations … and part of lower expectations is that I have mostly avoided the mental anguish of finding the perfect place to get a good haircut. I figure that if someone can make my hair shorter, get it mostly even all around and avoid lopping off an ear in the process, that, by definition, is a “good” haircut. But the place that I had been going to was suddenly not so convenient for me, and finding a new place was, to be honest, a bit daunting.
However, I had some guidance in my quest because, for the past 5 years, I have been going to a chain salon called Wenfeng. Well, “salon” is a bit to much for this place … its kind of a mash-up between a barber shop and a fast food joint. And, true to my personal taste, this is not the place for haute couture in Shanghai. This is the Great Clips of China. Just a place to get a haircut. The stylists – if you can call them that – all have these fashionable cuts, but they go a real salon to get them done and can’t really do it themselves. Nope, Wenfeng is a place you go when you want your hair shorter and you are rather attached to your ears and would like to remain so.
Wenfeng is also a place that gives the absolute BEST scalp massages in the Milky Way. This is a feature of most hair salons in China – and, indeed, throughout Asia – where, as they are washing your hair before the cut, the washer will give you a scalp massage. OMG … it is the BEST feeling in the world! I have a hard time from keeping my leg from chattering like a Golden Retriever getting a tummy rub. And the reason that Wenfeng is so good is that the young women they hire all come from the countryside where they grew up slapping pigs around and hauling grain to market. These girls have finger strength that could poke a fourth hole in a bowling ball.
When I first started going to Wenfeng I purchased a 会员卡 (hui yuan ka), also known as a “VIP” card. You pay a certain amount of money and then use the card to pay for services, getting a decent discount besides. I wasn’t quite clear on the discount policy but I figured that I was going to get my haircut at least once a month so I put a couple hundred bucks down on a card. Well, it turns out that my discount is HUGE so each haircut comes to something like a dollar fifty and it seems I haven’t made a DENT in that card in 5 years, so I was kind of stuck looking for another Wenfeng near me.
I found one, about a half-hour walk from me, and went there last weekend. I walked in and a bell dinged, signifying the arrival of a new customer. There were about 20 workers in there and another 10 customers, and ALL of them turned towards me and the place fell silent. It felt like I had just walked into the women’s restroom or a secret cult meeting, I felt SO conspicuous! After 10 seconds of silence, a slight murmur went around the place … 老外，老外 (lao wai, lao wai). “Foreigner, look at the foreigner!”
Then the workers started scrambling and calling out a name of one of the employees. A young woman came up to me and, in halting, nervous English said, “Hello … you want hair?” I think she meant to say “do you want a hair CUT” but the question was appropriate either way and I was able to nod my head with a clear conscience. Then I said, in Chinese, “Yes, I would like a haircut, please.” There was a gasp from the entire store, like I had just turned shampoo into wine. “He speaks Chinese… he speaks Chinese!!” The girl broke into a huge smile of relief and led me to a chair in front of a large mirror.
As she started washing my hair, I looked at her in the mirror and said, “You don’t get many foreigners in here, do you?” She said, “No, you are the first one we’ve ever had, and we’ve been open for over a year.” We had a nice chat, asking each other where we were from, how we liked Shanghai, etc. Then others came by and got into the conversation, asking their own questions: how old was I, how tall was I and how much did I weigh, did I have children. Then someone yelled across the room, “Hey … ask him what he thought of China in the Olympics!” If someone were to have asked me my opinion on how to balance the US national budget, I would not have been surprised.
When it came time to get my haircut, my hair-washer found the oldest, most experienced stylist in the place. He looked about 15. He sat me in another chair and started looking at my hair, pinching it between his fingers, feeling the texture and saying “hmmm…” to himself. I was the first foreigner he had ever met, he said, and he wasn’t really familiar with foreigner hair. Chinese hair can be tough, like a horses mane, but mine has been inherited from my Scandinavian ancestors and resembles the light down on a duckling’s butt. It has no natural shape, no style of its own … it grows out of my head and then succumbs to gravity, falling in whatever manner it can.
He started cutting, slowly, getting the hang of things as he went along. He saw that he really had no chance of “styling” anything up there … he just had to make it shorter. Then he came to the top of my head and noticed that there is a part of my scalp where the hair is thinner than the rest … and with my wimpy hair, I’m talking THIN. He spent about 5 minutes trying to comb things this way and that and then fluffing my hair up in order to hide the spot. I don’t “fluff” and I told him so, saying not to worry about it because that’s just the way it was. He laughed and said that Chinese men were VERY concerned about going bald. I said, “That’s OK … I’m not Chinese. I’ve got other problems, but not that.”
He was done in 20 minutes and it looked pretty good. I went to the front with my new entourage in tow and produced my card. There was another gasp – not only was I a foreigner, but I was a VIP customer! I walked out of there with people waving and saying goodbye. I felt like Glinda the Good Witch of the West floating off in her bubble with people running after me.
There are very few places in Shanghai these days where foreigners have NOT been … we seem to have invaded, cockroach-like, into most corners of this amazing city and we don’t attract too much notice anymore. But everyone now and then, a Wenfeng Day comes along and any middle-aged balding white guy can feel like a rock star. Shallow? You bet. Desperate for attention? Um … duh!! In need of professional help? Yea, probably. But I don’t know of a therapist around that will make you feel better AND give you a scalp massage and a decent haircut for a buck fifty!
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The weather in Shanghai this summer has been particularly nice. As I wrote about a few weeks ago, we’ve seen a strange ball of light in the sky a lot this summer and our annual quotient of puffy clouds has been fully consumed for this year and probably into the next. It would be a shame if, because it was so nice this year that next year was doomed to days of a Blade Runner haze without the cool flying cars.
This would be a real downer because when it rains in Shanghai, life is truly miserable. The problem is not that it rains but rather, in the way that it rains and what the rain does to the surrounding environment. In Shanghai, we never seem to get a “light rain”, you know, that kind of rain that people identify as representing a romantic, thoughtful side of their character when they say they like strolling around in it (seriously, I’m not a relationship counselor, but if you’re even thinking of getting involved with someone who has written a single’s ad that says “likes walks in the rain”, I’d have a background check run on them immediately. They would probably check the “likes poking small animals with a fork” box if there was one). No, rain in Shanghai is either one of two types: the Noah-build-a-boat torrential downpour or a stinging Chinese water torture where the droplets seemed to have been sharpened by some prankster angel before being released. Then you add in the humidity of a city built on a swamp and you wonder that you don’t grow gills in order to survive.
The other misery in Shanghai is what happens to the city when it rains. Case in point … I stepped out of my Shanghai office the other day and there was a light, stinging rain and that life-in-a-humidor heaviness to the air. I left the safe confines of my building and started walking gingerly down the sidewalk. I was doing pretty well until, walking by an apartment building, I suddenly slipped and, cursing Isaac Newton, started to feel myself losing my center of gravity.
Now, I am a rather tall person and, as such, I like to keep close tabs on my center of gravity. I check on it every so often to make sure that it is still more or less in the middle of me (and as the middle of me has expanded a bit over the years, it makes for a convenient shelf on which to place my center of gravity). But the risk to ones center of gravity during a rainstorm here is particularly high because China’s sidewalks, for the most part, are tiled. Now I’m not talking about the cool slate tiles on the outdoor patio of some California cuisine restaurant. No, I’m talking about freakin’ BATHROOM tiles. Walking on the sidewalk in China after it rains is akin to stepping out of the shower fully clothed (and for many of us not blessed by the gods of the walkway with supermodel beauty, remaining fully clothed in public is a service we are more than happy to provide). This is tile that would serve as a scene for a pratfall in every Three Stooges film or Tom and Jerry cartoon.
When I slipped and started to fall, life slowed to Matrix-fight-speed. I performed an ungainly pirouette until my entire weight came to rest on my left toe, a move resembling the graceless love child of a Keystone Kop and Dorothy Hamil’s less talented sister Hilda (the one with the inner-ear disorder). To offset the imbalance, I extended my right arm and bent over double, a move that one might imagine George Bush doing in his college cheerleading years with an equal amount of Bushian aplomb.
Now, if I could have done this when alone – say, in the confines of my own home – it wouldn’t have been so bad. But in such a public setting, after the first 15 seconds, a crowd had formed to watch the foreigner gyrate. Bets were taken. Some put my performance down to a seizure and started debating whether to call a doctor; some thought me a defecting Russian gymnast who had just done a dismount off of some unseen apparatus and they were waiting for the judges’ scores; others speculated that I was a lesser talented member of an interpretative dance group who had decide that busking was a way to make a little extra scratch to make up for reduced NEA grants … and they were thinking of calling the cops.
Anyway, bent double and facing the pavement, I noticed another looming hazard of Shanghai street-life: a gaping hole in the sidewalk. The one before me was by no means the largest (city officials have filled most of the honey-have-you-seen-junior pits that used to pockmark the city), but I could feel myself being pulled towards it by Newton’s law (here I am not referring to the renowned physicist, Sir Isaac Newton but rather to my buddy, Mike “Fat Lip” Newton who is famous for saying “Any personal accident that CAN happen to me WILL”).
The thought of pitching headlong into the hole caused me to flail even more wildly. Reaching out with my left hand, I grasped at anything nearby that could save me … which turned out to be a clothesline heavy with someone’s laundry. A pair of skivvies fell over my face causing momentary blindness. I shook my head with vigor to dislodge the pest and banged my head on a low-hanging air conditioner. Oddly, this jolt had a calming effect as I suddenly found myself with both feet firmly planted on the ground and my center of gravity wobbling back to its rightful place.
As the time-space continuum was slowly being restored to its normal pace, I could hear a murmur of amazement resonating through my audience. A hot sensation of embarrassment crept upon me and, as like a good American, I gave full vent to my frustrations: “What is it with this country?” I yelled. “This place is a health hazard… the rain, the tile, the holes…. Where are the personal injury lawyers? This country needs a warning label!!”
As I ranted, the crowd quickly dispersed, but for one elderly Chinese man who took a few steps in my direction. He said nothing, but laid a gentle, steadying hand on my shoulder. He looked into my eyes. Then he looked at the departing crowd. I followed his gaze. Everyone else was walking upright on the wet tiles; they were doing just fine, avoiding the holes and their heads keeping clear of the low-hung air conditioners and laundry. The man looked back at me as if to say, “It is not the country that needs a warning label, young man. It’s you.”
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Spend enough time hanging around the Middle Kingdom and you begin to learn that food here is more than simply sustenance…it is, at any one time, fuel for social relationships, a reason to drink and smoke, a reward for a job well-done and a peace offering to the coworker you wanted to throttle in his cubicle during the business day a mere two hours ago.
But the real essence of Chinese food lies in its history. Imagine asking an American for the “story behind the hot dog”…it’s likely you would be met with a blank stare. Well, there is a story behind the hot dog and, I believe, it has something to do with a World’s Fair. If I knew the whole tale, it might take my mind off the fact that a hot dog really is all the gross animal parts swept up off the floor and stuffed inside a sausage skin, livestock offal in an edible container.
However, the majority of Americans neither know nor care about this piece of lost history. We are a practical race, one whose concerns revolve around the quantity of raw onions bits surrounding the hot dog, the quantity of watery beer available to wash it down and the baseball game, which depending on its quality, may or may not suffice to distract us from the ingredients in the hot dog.
The Chinese, on the other hand, have a vast and ready knowledge of their cuisine. True, many Chinese today are far removed from direct contact with what they consume. Gone are the halcyon days of the infamous Shanghai wet market (or “Organ Donor Alley” as my father called it) when folks purchased their food in a raw state. Instead most Chinese now purchase the all-too-familiar mystery meat in barely opaque bubble wrap in their modern grocer’s refrigerator. But that doesn’t mean that they have forgotten their history.
Any Chinese man-on-the-street can name the five main types of Chinese cuisine and recount the specialities of his hometown. He may lack the culinary skills required to boil water without burning the pot, but he can (and will) tell you if a certain dish is not prepared quite right. The only reason China doesn’t have a Food Channel is that it would be pointless; there’s no need to inform people about something they already know (or are confident they know, even if they don’t).
In the US, food is mere science; in China it’s an art. And art that incorporates poetry, particularly when naming a dish. Consider a few of the more creative Chinese dish names: Buddha Jumped Over the Wall (and no, the big guy didn’t jump over the wall because there was a rack of BBQ ribs on the other side… try again). And then there’s the wonderful entomological imagery evoked by Ants Climbing a Tree (as opposed to climbing the walls like they do in my apartment) or the ode to love, Fu Qi Fei Pian (literally “Husband Wife Lung Slices”). Let me explain this one; it consists of thinly sliced beef lung and tripe, one dark, the other light, get it, man and women, married… (I’m not going to tell you which is the tripe and which is the lung. I leave that to the individual spousal units… not getting in the middle of that one, no way!).
Call me a sissy, but I have decided it is high time that we Americans got off our trans-fat fannies and started putting some poetry into our food. Of course, renaming existing dishes might cause war, but someone’s got start this thing, so here’s my humble List of American Dishes That Have No History (OK…I’ll work on that name a bit before it goes prime time).
Irish Stew: a bowl of Lucky Charms left too long in milk;
Obese Ants on a Log: “Whoppers” brand malted milk balls lined up on a Twinkie;
Dylan Unplugged: a flaming plate of hot peppers doused in chili;
Learning to Wok: Chow Mein in a microwaveable carton, with heating instructions;
Supermodel Delight: a glass of water;
Supermodel Binge: a glass of water with an olive floating in it;
You Betcha That’s Lunch: anything doused in cream of mushroom soup, layered with Tater Tots and baked at 350 degrees for 35 minutes, served with cherry Jello, sliced bananas, stale potato chips and a glass of 1% milk (fellow Minnesotans, can I get an “Amen” here?);
Honey You Left the Milk Out Again: cheese;
Honey You Left the Milk Out: cheese;
Honey You Left the Milk Out Again and You are Going to Clean Up the Mess This Time: cottage cheese;
I am not trying to supplant Chinese cuisine; goodness knows no one can do that. But I am trying to motivate we Americans to think about our food as something other than fuel. And when one keels over from a massive coronary after consuming hunks of roast beef piled on mashed potatoes and soaked with gravy, the eulogy will sound so much better mentioning the deceased’s love for “Nurse Get the Paddles.” At least mine will.