Pancake Colours
English Teacher Training Program at Xiamen Electronic Vocational School. Photo opp for headmaster (to my right) who disappeared after picture.

English Teacher Training Program at Xiamen Electronic Vocational School. Photo opp for headmaster (to my right) who disappeared after picture.

With the recent news of (and closure of) two fake Apple retail stores in China, it’s never clear to me if I’m looking at the real deal or a nearly flawless (but always flawed) facsimile. 

I read that the employees at one fake Apple store thought they did indeed work for Apple.

This electronics shop was on the fifth floor of the SM complex in Xiamen.

"What does ‘SM’ stand for?" I asked Peter Pan.

"Shopping Mall," he said proudly.

With the recent news of (and closure of) two fake Apple retail stores in China, it’s never clear to me if I’m looking at the real deal or a nearly flawless (but always flawed) facsimile.

I read that the employees at one fake Apple store thought they did indeed work for Apple.

This electronics shop was on the fifth floor of the SM complex in Xiamen.

"What does ‘SM’ stand for?" I asked Peter Pan.

"Shopping Mall," he said proudly.

Peanut soup is a Xiamen specialty. Served cool, it is rich but not creamy, with soft-cooked peanut pieces throughout.

Peanut soup is a Xiamen specialty. Served cool, it is rich but not creamy, with soft-cooked peanut pieces throughout.

The Once and Future Key

I have two keys in China that I use the most, and they may represent the present and future.

The first one is a metal key, a copy of a copy of a copy of the front gate key to my apartment building. I was told by the woman at the Bank whose boss in San Francisco owns the apartment that I must not make a copy of this key, though it’s clear to me, by the soft metal and sharp teeth, that this itself is a copy. The Chinese can make a copy better than most, one that mimics the original’s aesthetics in nearly every way but lacks structural integrity. There are exact copies of the Apple retail store, DVD shops peddling bootleg first-run Hollywood films on Blu-ray, pastries that look like authentic French croissants, Gucci purses that my teaching colleague is convinced are “real” although I simply pointed out that the leather does not scratch when I run my fingernail across it!, faux meats in the Buddhist restaurants, and even cars that I suspect carry fraudulent Lexus emblems. The art of the copy has been mastered here, but the master key, I’d guess, belongs to innovators elsewhere. (More than once I’ve been asked to have exact copies made of my teaching materials, which, if I’m honest, are not even all that mind-blowing, so I’m not sure how high — and of what substance — the bar is for innovation.)

This copy-only culture may not be the future reality, though, when I consider my second key, a plastic one, in the shape of credit card: a technological marvel – well, at least a remarkable application of technology – enabled by a system controlled by a single political entity. Kathy at the technical school gave me this key, and Jenny, one of my students, took me to a convenience store to load 50 RMB onto it. I use it each morning to board the city bus, and I just swipe it to deduct the 90 Mao (that’s .9 RMB) charge for a ride. (Some keep the key in their wallet and just wave their butt or purse at the card reader to debit their account.) Now, I realize that prepaid card systems are not unique, but wait. When I get to school, I use this same key to unlock the multi-use classroom where I’ve been teaching. Just pass it across the black strip and wait for the red light to turn yellow then green. At lunch, in the faculty cafeteria, I take this same key and pass it over another card reader in the buffet line to deduct the 3RMB discounted lunch for teachers. Board the bus. Enter a secure building. Pay for your meal. I’m told that in the next few years, the card will also contain my complete ID on a chip for use at hospitals, libraries, supermarkets. I feel like I live on a giant Communist college campus with a CCP OneCard where all systems are integrated unilaterally.

During the “Show & Tell” portion of my class, while some teachers gave talks on chopsticks, traditional Chinese tea service, a bamboo backscratcher, jade, and a stamp collection, Kathy, the head of the English department, showed off her all-in-one keycard, like mine, as something “interesting” or “important” to her (as the assignment requested).

Yesterday when I returned from the two-day trip to Zhongzhou, I put the metal key into the green gate at the bottom of my building. When I turned the key, the head continued with my hand but the shaft broke off into the lock just below the top notch and even further below the key’s shoulder. (note: I Googled “diagram of key parts” and learned its simple anatomy.) In movies, when this happens, the lock is forever disabled and everyone is upset at you. In reality, I just reached with my fingernails and pulled the slim sliver out. I tried to reinsert and twist but I was missing the top notch and the lock wouldn’t disengage. I waited for a few minutes for some other tenants to let me in.

PHOTO: Xiamen Electronic Vocational School keycard and broken metal key for Jiamei Gardens Apartment.

Long story short, I wish my building was on the unified keycard system. The apartment feels like a college dormitory anyway, so why not just put it under the control of the CCP? I could buy copied keys and DVDs with a simple swipe before a bus ride to the dentist, where another swipe would pay for my in-molar ID implant.

Continued adventures in the Chinese Anytime Nap Saga…



Tiers of tea hedges

Circle the mountain

Like lines on a topographic map

Hens lie lightly

Near a concrete slab

Where a kitten bats a marble

Two horses with eyelashes

Are tethered opposite each other

Across a path

A foal lumbers on new legs

Between them

As if couriering a message

A pink chick pecks

In moss and gravel

The horn screams

From a lime-green tour bus

And leaves us greasy with gas

In front of the King Earth Building

Four circular stories

Of mud, bamboo, and maybe

Some rice and sugar too

The shape of a hat

Or a silo or a cake

Built in 1623 over ten years

With four concentric buildings

And housing six hundred 

All from the same family

You can marry a Lin

After five generations

Each twenty-year grouping

Standing away from the next

Curved rows of Lins

Like long pews of tea

Scaling a mountain

"The Prince of Earth Buildings"

When people in China see the destination

When Chinese people see the destination, at least on foot or in a car, there is only the self.  (For the sake of this post, understand these remarks as observations of trends, not generalized statements of Xiameners or Chinese, but I’ve seen few outliers, and they were foreigners.)

Here is a typical morning commute story: a city bus approaches the stop, and people trot alongside the bus in its direction and anticipation of it stopping. When it stops, an individual – say a 30-something woman with a silk dress, smart shoes, and a parasol – sees only the opening glass doors, and understands fully her desire to enter the bus. Her entry to the bus is her predestiny.  You feel her forearm first in your shoulder.  You’ve been standing in the spot where the bus usually stops and you are about to board yourself — in fact, you’re first in line.  Her next move is to reach across you for the bar to hoist herself onto the buses rubber stairs as if you are not there, and only her ascension into the bus’s interior makes any sense to her.  When you face-acknowledge this “rude” behavior, someone else clips your other shoulder and is up the stairs, too.  In fact, you are not there:  She is not rude, he is not rude, they have seen their destination and they have gone to it.  When the door opens, the people go to it, funneling in, like fish upward to sprinkled food.  When you hike a mountain and pull yourself up by rock and boulder, you do not stop to see how the scorpion is doing.

They drive much the same way, whether in a Jaguar, a three-wheeled motorcycle, a silent electric bike, or a tour bus.  Two-hour trips become four hours because of constant leap-frog lane-changing where no particular vehicle has prerogative.  In a forty-person tour bus, the driver today approached each car from the rear – regardless of lane – and honked in a staccato then sustained way in what seemed to be a notification of passing: I need to go beyond you, so I will shove my way through, but it is not shoving because you are not there.  This driver was aggressively passing cars (as were other large bus and truck drivers) on the left and right, honking all the way, like a college sophomore home for the holidays, driving his girlfriend in his BMW 3 Series to his parents’ summer cottage.  Elbowing his way toward Xiamen, the driver’s nonchalance betrayed the ordinariness of this national means of movement.  And since nobody else on the bus wrinkled foreheads or evil-eyed the front of the bus, I take this event to be an everyday occurrence, just like scrambling to get onto the bus in the first place.

Powerless at the back of the bus and understanding full-well my mini judgment forming, I decided to dub this crowd-nudging, constant-cutting, destination-seeking technique as being precisive.  Drawing on pre- for “before” and –cise- meaning “cutting” (like incisors), I submit this word to the lexicon.  If we admire the decisive and cower to the incisive, I suggest we stand entirely clear of the precisive, those who must “cut before” us because we are not there.  As an adjective, I recommend these definitions:

          Precisive, adj.

1. Always cutting before another

2. Having the delusion of preeminence

\VIDEO\ Outside In: Earth Building in Material & Shape

This weekend I visited the World Heritage site of the “earth buildings,” 70+ traditional homes scattered in three counties near Zhonzhou, Fujian, China.

Chengqi Building, the “King of Earth Buildings” in Yongding County, is a majestic version of the hakka tulous, circular communal houses built from mud (and sometimes bamboo, sugar, and rice, too) and containing other concentric circular buildings. One described it this way: “Four stories tallin four circleswith four hundred rooms from cellar to rafter; round in roundcircle in circlewith a long and fateful history of three hundred years.”  More information here.

Three meals worth their weight in oil (with photos)

Though the oiliest food I’ve eaten for such an extended period, I will miss it. Chinese cuisine does emphasize vegetables, but the Chinese palate doesn’t seem to.  Vegetables are integrated into pork, fish, and beef dishes.  When you ask Chinese about vegetable-only dishes, they struggle to name any, but in reality, vegetables appear throughout menus. I see loads of leafy greens, root veggies, squash, eggplant, and all manner of shoots and sprouts.  I think there’s something about the Chinese culinary psyche that prevents eaters from recognizing vegetable-only dishes as dishes at all.  They wok-fry bok choy and serve it in a bowl on the table, but it doesn’t seem like a dish to them.  Early on, I learned to say, “Wo chi su,” which means, “I eat vegetables,” but is the easiest way to suggest a vegetarian diet.  I like to imagine non-native English speakers in the Cheesecake Factory uttering the one phrase they know, “I eat vegetables,” and then staring at the server.  I am so humbled to be here.

I’ve eaten many meals at a vegan Chinese restaurant a few blocks away from my Jiamei Gardens apartment in Xiamen.  The staff are cheery teenagers who replenish the buffet throughout the meager opening hours for dinner (6-7:30pm).  I went at 7:15pm once and there was little left to eat.  I love this: The chefs cook food for dinner time and you should come eat it.  I had been told to go at 6pm for the “richest food,” which I’ve come to learn means “the most plentiful and fresh.” PHOTO: Here’s the restaurant’s exterior.

think the restaurant may be called “Loving Food,” which makes sense given its overall aesthetic of Supreme Master Ching Hai, whose image and messages of global symbiosis and low-impact living are broadcast on a flat panel TV above the buffet tables. (I recognized the looped video from the vegan chain “Loving Hut,” which has locations in Phoenix and also inculcates its veggie grubbers with the same benevolent propaganda: Be Veg: Go Green. 2 Save the Planet.)

Here is a typical plate from the lunchtime buffet.  I ate this for lunch on Friday, July 22.  PHOTO: Clock-wise from the whitish roll at 12 o’clock: moo shoo vegetable crepe, rice noodles, sweet and sour gluten balls, coconut milk tofu, some sort of blanched sea vegetable (looks like thin edible coral!), tofu skins, green beans, fried cucumber sticks, fried mango, and green shoots.  Add to this a soup and maybe a congee, porridge. 

The dinner buffet is very similar.  Here’s a first plate from a dinner last week. (Sometimes I go for seconds…).  Each meal is just 13-15 RMB ($2-2.30).  On the placard above the dish (PHOTO below) there is a message about saving the planet.  The message includes the following: If you waste food, there will be a 10RMB charge.  This gave me the opportunity to teach (and be a chronic member of) “the clean plate club” to my companions.

On Thursday, three teachers (Kathy, Wendy, Vivian) took me to lunch to have noodles typical of northeastern China at a restaurant called Jinweide near the school.  PHOTO: My dish was egg-fried noodles with tomato and some hearty-green stem that I can’t identify.  The garnishes were kelp and the most bitter vegetable melon I’ve ever tasted.  Most conversation seems to happen after the meal and not during. Slurping evidently aerates the noodles and enhances flavor.  We drank four or five cups of tea after the meal.

The teachers all had noodles in broth.  PHOTO: This is the restaurant’s layout.  The logo is etched into the backs of the chairs.