China for the First Time Traveller: What You Should Know

I recently read a post about one American woman’s solo journey to China. A combination of personal financial problems and “bad timing” prevented her from getting the most out of this country. I realize now that China, for most people, seems like such an alien place, where, from reading other blog posts from first time travellers,  people are afraid. Afraid of the lack of language communication, afraid of the food, afraid of the general “foreign-ness.”

Because of my upbringing, I forget that many people don’t have a familiarity with Mainland China. The information they get about this country comes from the news, which of course, emphasizes the country’s shortcomings: communism, censorship, lack of “freedom,” poverty, and cheap labor.

Thus, I have been inspired to give a general primer on China. Maybe it’ll help others come to understand, at least at the surface, what China, and being “Chinese,” is. Continue reading

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10 Favorite Chinese Foods

Chinese food is not all just dumplings and buns. It’s not orange chicken, moo goo gai pan, or chop suey. It is not a serving of General Tso’s Chicken (I’ve actually never had that) and a fortune cookie. Chinese food is complex, diverse, and not drenched in saccharine neon colored sauce. Every region of China has it’s own cuisine, and for too long has it all been conglomerated into what is considered “Chinese food.” There is not just one Chinese cuisine. There are Cantonese, Shanghainese, Anhuinese, Beijingnese, and Tibetan cuisines. There is Chinese Muslim cuisine. Chinese food is not what you find at Panda Express; it is something much much more.

So without further ado, I give my non-ranked, north to south list of favorite “Chinese” foods. I haven’t tried a lot of regional cuisines, but I hope to inspire and maybe help you rethink “what is Chinese food.” Continue reading

Mmmmm Mooncake

With September around the corner the office is all a buzz because we got our shipment of moon cakes, or yue bing (月餅). For those of you who don’t know what moon cakes are, they are a thick pastry baked once every year for the Mid-Autumn Festival. These cakes are made out of lotus seed, red/green bean, or some other sweet paste and either have nuts or egg yolk in them. Different varieties of moon cake fillings and flavors have cropped up over the years. You can buy them at any Chinese supermarket around this time of year if you’re curious to try them (my favorite is the plain lotus seed moon cake. The egg yolk is too dry and heavy for me).

Lotus Seed Moon Cake with Egg Yolk

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Chapter 2: Dali Through a Basic Camera

I’m going to try something new. Instead of rambling on about the city of Dali, maybe I can show you through pictures.

After all, they do say a picture is worth a thousand words…

I’m not a professional photographer by any means. In fact, the camera that I used is a basic Nikon Coolpix camera. The ones you get from Costco.

So, all pretension aside. I give you Dali through a basic camera.

The Long Bus Journey (7 hours long…and then we hit traffic)

The View from an Emergency Exit Window

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Humor Knows No Boundaries

I have a pretty dry sense of humor (at least, I would like to think so). It’s 95% sarcasm, peppered with faux disdain and self deprecation. And most of the time it’s very deadpan. I’m not as talented as the British (very few are in that department), but it’s definitely not an “American” sense of humor.

So it goes without saying that many people either take my comments seriously, or, if they’ve known me for a while, as “mean” (though they know better). It doesn’t help that I sometimes write my emails with a sarcastic bite (to my friends of course), and so they misconstrue what I’m saying. Sarcasm doesn’t translate over the internet unless it’s really over-the-top obvious.

This brings me to an interesting post I read about sarcasm and humor in China (he updated his thoughts recently). I must say that it’s pretty fascinating, as I never actually realized the disparity between Chinese and “western” (read: American) humor until recently. I remember trying to joke with my family members in Chinese, and they either didn’t get it or thought I was serious.

Case in point: I was driving home with my father one night, and he noticed that a lot of recently built houses all had their lights out. Since it was Memorial Day weekend and this is Los Angeles, I joked that maybe the owners all went to Las Vegas. He responded with “no, I think it’s because those houses couldn’t get sold.” Maybe what I said wasn’t all that funny, but I was pretty convinced that my dad didn’t get it. He wouldn’t respond the way he did if he did. Maybe it was my deadpan delivery, or maybe it was that he didn’t understand sarcasm.

Although, I must say that self deprecating jokes, some of them, are understood as being ironic. Some of the time I make fun of myself and people think I’m serious.

After reading the post, along with an fascinating WSJ article, I realize that the reason why my sense of humor is not understood by most Chinese people is that, other than the language barrier, sarcastic and dry humor does not have a long history in China. Their sense of humor is more straightforward, pun-heavy, and sometimes incredibly slapstick. The use of irony and all its subsets (maybe not dramatic irony) has not travelled into the mainstream. I’ve found that the Chinese people who actually understand my sense of humor are either born outside of China or are exposed to a lot of “Western” humor.

Although, changing the way I kid in China might still led to misunderstandings. I remember one time when I was studying in China, my American classmate tried to make a pun in Chinese, deliberately mispronouncing the word baozi (dumpling) as biaozi (a curse word). The folks he was talking to didn’t understand, and tried to correct his pronunciation. He continued to insist on the second word, and the Chinese folks continued to insist on correcting him. I found that situation funnier than the actual attempt at humor.

Anyway, as I prepare for my time in China, this thought just crossed my mind. I’ve honestly not travelled to China with people my age for quite a while: it’s either been with people 40 years older than I am or by myself. This should prove to be an interesting experience, as laughter is supposed to be this amazing ice breaker that spans across all cultures. I guess the ways to create laughter does not.

P.S. If you didn’t get the title of this post, I was being sarcastic. Explaining humor seem so foreign to me, I must learn to get used to it.