Monday, December 31, 2012

Merry Christmas from Another Planet

Christmas has come and gone in a subtropical frenzy of activity.  China does not officially recognize Christmas as a holiday, although the merchants wish that they would.  You see some Christmas decorations around shopping centers and department stores like Wal Mart sell some Christmas items.  It’s observed more like St Patrick’s Day or Valentine’s Day.

Saxophone Santa is a major figure of Chinese Christmas

Some families have a tree and give some gifts.  They may go out to dinner.  However, our International Kindergarten made it a big deal, and so did all the other schools in our Education Group.
Shengdan is Mandarin for Christmas.  Shengdan kuaile is Merry Christmas.  Shengdan laoren is Santa Claus,  literally “Christmas Old Person”.  Once again, I had the honor to be Christmas Old Person for the kindergarten Christmas show.  I also got to make an appearance at another school of ours for their afternoon Christmas party.  We were blessed with temperatures in the 80’s that afternoon which is fine if you don’t have to wear a Christmas Old Person beard and costume and mingle with rug rats in the sun for 90 minutes.  Christmas Old Person had a sweat soaked suit and a very itchy face at the end of that gig.

Christmas Old Person and Ms. C.O.P. get down with it!

The next day was much cooler, and it was time for our big show.  It was a multi cultural treat featuring a Russian Frost the Snowman, a lovely Russian emcee and her Chinese translator in fetching Santa babe outfits.  There was a Grinch who kidnapped Christmas Old Person, which is actually some kind of Russian tradition, perhaps inspired by the KGB.  We had the kids perform such wonderful songs as “10Little Santas” (HOHOHO!)  and “We are Santa’s Elves”, a composition of my own that I am quite proud of.  It’s sung to the tune of “A Hunting We Will Go”:

We are Santa's Elves©

"We are Santa’s Elves
We are Santa’s Elves
Tra la la la la la
We are Santa’s Elves."

It’s soon to be a Christmas classic, I think.
The grand finale was the Reindeer Pokey (You put two hooves in, You put two hooves out.....)
Our sound system sucked, but the translator’s microphone was OK, so the audience got the message OK.  Most of what the foreign cast said would have been unintelligible anyway:
Christmas Old Person:  Blah mip --- sssh.
Translator:  Shengdan kuaile!!!!!

This Grande Event took a lot of effort and frenzy, not unlike the Holiday Season at home, except gift giving on our parts was kept pretty minimal.  I cooked a big Italian meal for some expat friends with ingredients scrounged from lots of different locations around Guangdong Province, Zhanjiang and Hong Kong.
Our local produce is wonderful and I procured eggplant and Roma tomatoes.  I have fresh basil growing on my balcony and I managed to get mozzarella and a wedge of Parmesan cheese.  We had fettuccine Alfredo made with wide Chinese noodles and local shrimp.  I roasted and peeled red and yellow bell peppers and marinated them in black rice vinegar with garlic and fresh chives.  And I made a yummy marinara sauce from the fresh Romas and made eggplant parmigiana.  As the guests waited for dinner I plied them with crustinis and other treats.
Chinese kitchens tend to be very small and ill equipped and mine is no exception.  I have a two burner gas stove, an electric hot plate, a microwave, a small toaster oven, and enough counter space to accommodate either a cutting board or the hot plate.  I enjoy a challenge at times, and I provided myself with one.   I haven’t had an American Christmas in four years.  This Chinese/Italian thing was a pretty good substitute.
Every year at this time in the US,  there is controversy over Christmas vs "Holidays", but not here.  Some hardcore Commie bloggers have made a little fuss over the consumer thing, but Saxophone Santa seems to be winning out over the joyless ideologues.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Hong Kong Again

Click the pix for larger picture

We had a quick trip to Hong Kong.  It consisted of two days on a bus, two nights and one day in this financial center of AsiaHong Kong is expensive, fun, and crowded.  There is always something new to do, and never enough time to do it.
We ate a lot, drank a lot, and got some shopping done.  We got a few gifts and got them mailed at one of Hong Kong’s most excellent post offices.  Chinese post offices are horrifyingly slow, convoluted, and nigh impossible for a foreigner to negotiate without a native assistant.  Hong Kong post offices are just as easy to use as their American counterparts, the staff are friendly and helpful, and your stuff gets where it needs to go rather quickly.  A package will take about 10 days to get to its destination in the US.  If you mail something from China it apparently first gets sent to Mexico, where it languishes along with the rest of the Mexican mail for however many weeks are deemed necessary.  Or maybe not, but the Chinese postal service seems to have a different mission from other postal systems in the world.  It’s a secret of some sort, I think.
When various friends and colleagues found out we were headed to Hong Kong, we were tasked with multiple missions.  One friend wanted us to post some Christmas cards.  The rest gave us shopping lists.  Hong Kong has stuff that China doesn’t.  It also has stuff that China does have, but you have a better chance of it being what is advertised on the packaging than if you get it in China.  One of the most popular items for Chinese people to request from Hong Kong is baby formula, and powdered milk.  This is because a few years back, evil, low life, scum sucking, sociopathic dairy merchants deliberately added melamine to milk powder to make the crap they were selling appear to have enough protein to make it actual milk.  It caused deaths and permanent kidney damage to lots of babies and children.  Because of this, and many, many other incidents of tainted, mislabeled, and bogus products, people don’t trust what they get in China.
I have three colleagues who are pregnant, and they all requested prenatal powdered milk supplements.  (Buying milk products in Hong Kong and bringing them into China is actually a big business for people living on border.)  Another friend wanted a traditional medicine for his blood.  It’s made in China, but he knows that the stuff he gets in Hong Kong is the real deal. 
There are also products you can’t get in Zhanjiang.  We bought Doritos, Worcestershire sauce, basil and Dijon mustard for ourselves.  We also purchased Cheddar cheese, but it only got as far as the hotel room where it was devoured.
Hong Kong does not get up early.  If you want to enjoy a less frantic and crowded Hong Kong, get out on the streets around 7 am.  You can get a seat on the subway at 8 am sometimes.  It’s not a good time to go shopping, though.
One of the least endearing aspects of this city are the touts in Kowloon.  These are people, mostly Indian men, who approach all Caucasians on the sidewalk, shoving business cards and flyers in your face trying to get you to use a certain tailor, buy a counterfeit watch, or fake designer bags.  They also represent dive hotels, restaurants, massage parlors, and any other business that wants to piss off white pedestrians.  They are mostly concentrated in the areas of cheap hotels and flop houses. 
Chunking Mansions is a place swarming with touts.  It’s an old building stuffed with shops, money changers, and dive restaurants on the ground floor.  The floors above are chock full of cheap hotels.  These hotels may only take up a portion of a floor, and all are of the budget variety.  The place swarms with Indians, Pakistanis, Africans, and various other ethnic folks.  It has “atmosphere” and is a great place to experience first hand a feeling of being out of one’s comfort zone.  You get the strong impression that you can procure all kinds of nefarious things there, or perhaps plot a coup.  Nobody is friendly, even if you buy something from them, and glaring seems to be standard greeting for most.  I’ve stayed there a couple of times.  After the first stay, I believe I swore never to do so again, but managed to forget my promise to myself and tried another night.  I remembered why I made that pledge.  This trip we stayed in a non sketchy place.
We took a great boat ride around the harbor one night.  Everyone should ride a boat in Hong Kong, especially at night during Christmas season.
I’m on the bus going home now, and I think we may be an hour or so from the city.  I know this because the highway surface starts to get bumpy.  Highway funds seem to have found their way somewhere other than their intended purpose.
If you ever make a trip to Southeast Asia, try getting your flight routed through Hong Kong.  Ride a boat and stay in Chunking Mansions.  Eat great food and drink San Miguels.  Be rude to a tout.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Snake Oil

Click the pix for larger picture.
Yes, this is what it looks like.  It's in the window of a shop near my home along with some other jars full of odious mysteries known only the the practitioners of the some of the blacker medical arts.  I have no idea what this stuff is touted to do when you drink it, but I bet it has something to do with enhanced manliness.  Hell, you'd have to be pretty manly to even want to try to drink some of that vile stuff.
I'm pretty sure that the liquid is baijiu which literally means "really shitty tasting white liquor that only Chinese men will drink".  So you add a snake, and some other things unfit for human consumption, and you have a form or "traditional" Chinese medicine.  Tradition in this case does not enjoy the same status as acupuncture or Tai Chi,  It is more of the tradition of Snake Oil salesmen and the belief that there is a sucker born every minute.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Blogger's Block?

I haven’t written much in a while.  There have been no great upheavals, or grand adventures, just pretty mundane, busy day to day stuff.  Work, eat, sleep, watch TV, read a book, and follow the news is pretty much it.  However, I am doing this in China and that is exotic, or at least I keep telling myself that—a mundane lifestyle in an exotic environment.
There have been a couple of big government changes in a couple of major superpowers this month.  The President of the US has been given another four years to employ his curious agenda of bank coddling, press avoidance, and reluctant politicking.  He was given a few more politicians in his party in the House and Senate to give him some “political capital” and a mandate from the voters for him to dodge as best he can.  Either that or he will impose draconian Muslim/Communist, Sharia Laws, heralding in a thousand years of Darkness.  It depends on who you get your news from.
Over here there has been a new leadership group of dyed hair, black suited old guys to replace the group of dyed hair, black suited older guys that ran the place for the last 10 years.  Instead of 2 years of open political campaigning for votes of the masses like America has, they have been engaging in a lifetime of behind the scenes wheelings and dealings that ultimately got them where they are.  We don’t know what is involved, but that hasn't stopped the Pundits of the World from doing what they do best: engaging in highly inaccurate speculating.
We’ll see what comes of all this.  I’m not going to speculate, even though I may have a better vantage than whatever beltway think tank these ignorant bloviators observe from.
What is going on here in my city is rapid development and change.  We are in the first year of a Five Year Economic Development Plan.  There is an insane amount of construction.  Everywhere you go you see new apartment buildings, and more, going up.  You have a lot more time to view these buildings too, since traffic has gotten much worse.  This does give you the advantage of being able to sit in a clot of creeping vehicles and take in the spectacle of massive construction projects without the inconvenience of a fast moving vehicle moving you away from your view before you have had a chance to take it all in.  
Lots of money is being spent and made, both over and under the “table”.  Already a vice mayor has been booted for getting a little too greedy.
What is missing in this great development boom is some competent traffic engineers and street construction contractors.  Main thoroughfares have been torn up for half a year.  Flaggers, and any kind of traffic control around street projects is non existent.  No new traffic signals have gone up.  However, there is  a new crew of traffic police, who actually insert themselves into some busy intersections during peak traffic time, so that is some progress.
I mostly walk, ride the bus, take a taxi, or a “sanmo” when I need to get about.  However, a friend of mine likes to thrill me with rides on her electric motorbike, often taking me on errands when time is short and convenience trumps prudence.