Monday, November 17, 2008

Little Earthquakes and Memories of Shaokao

I awoke this morning, suddenly, after turning in quite early last night, with the lights still on. Seconds later, the room was shaking and the windows rattling. I looked at my cell phone--7 a.m. exactly. I suppose actually the quake started and woke me up, and then I realized it. It registered as 4.8 according to the U.S. Geological Survey's Earthquakes website, and came just 24 1/2 hours after a 4.7 tremor which I did not feel.

Six months almost to the day after the May 12 earthquake, many of us are still somewhat jumpy about shaking and noise that might indicate aftershocks, and apparently for good reason, 'cos they just keep on coming. 

In other quake-related news, L.A. just held a drill to prepare for the event of a 7.8-magnitude shake; and in addition to Prince Andrew's recent visit to Sichuan, Donna Versace and Jet Li recently toured the quake site. I spoke with a Vanity Fair Italy writer who was in town to cover the event and get the scoop and got the impression that still, nobody really knows what's going on, and those who do are keeping their mouths shut.

On a completely unrelated note, I just ate some shaokao, a snack consumed usually by late-night partiers due to its omnipresence on Chengdu's streets between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., and loved by foreigners for its point-and-choose ease of ordering--sticks of meats, vegetables, tofu, mushrooms, etc. are laid out on the back of a vendor's cart, and customers can come up, choose the sticks they want, and hand them to the vendor, who proceeds to roast them over burning coals, adding oil, salt, pepper, MSG, and Sichuanese spices. I usually eat it about once a month these days because it's never been my favorite, although sometimes, like tonight, it really hits the spot. 

Like much of food culture in China, eating shakao is generally a social event, so as I sat on my miniature plastic stool by my lonesome at a shoddy chipboard table, I had nothing to do but reflect on times past--such as the time my then-roommate and co-conspirator Malice stole shaokao from the stand near our former apartment. We had come back late, probably close to sunrise, from the south side of town, and were starving. The only food around there at that time was shaokao, and so we made a beeline for the stand. When we arrived, the sticks were all laid out, but there was nobody to be found. After standing around for a while, shy and unsure about using our limited Chinese, we braced ourselves and tried to call out, the way the locals do when nobody is in sight. We called and called, to no avail. Finally, we grabbed a few sticks of mantou, laid some money on the table, and made a run for it, Malice trying to hold them under her coat lest we run into the wayward shaokao seller on the way. When we got home we collapsed in laughter. Perhaps we were a bit tipsy that night as well. Untoasted, the mantou wasn't very good, either.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Body Image; America, China; Western, Eastern

For some reason this is a topic I come back to in my head often. Over a year ago I posted on the topic, and today I felt compelled to post again for the first time in a long time as several circumstances have led me to think about my own body image, as a woman, as a Westerner in China, and how those ideas are influenced by the media around us.

There's some back story to all this, so bear with me. A few days ago, Prince Andrew made an appearance at the Chengdu Bookworm as part of a Sichuan earthquake-sympathy visit (I guess); Chloe and I were invited but rather than joining the mismatched-suit-wearing who's who wannabes hung out on the back sofa, whispering and fidgeting with our mobile phones like bad kids at a middle-school assembly. From this perch we couldn't really see or hear much of what was going on given the apparently failing soundsystem, but we could watch the royal highness's hired security guards, evidently as engaged as we were, picking out magazines one by one from the Bookworm's stash of imported publications for sale, carefully pulling out of their plastic wraps, flipping through them, replacing them in their packagings, and returning them to the racks. At first Chloe and I were observing this phenomenon in silence, giggling at their choices (Cosmo, Us Weekly), but then I started trying to imagine viewing the magazine through the perspective of a young professional Chinese man. 

The first thing I thought was how trashily the celebrities were dressed and/or presented. I assumed the guard, probably in his late 20s to mid-30s, was hoping to get a glimpse of some skanky Western ass, and given that goal, actually, the magazines didn't yield much fruit. Sure, the featured celebrities were dressed in barely-there getups, but there wasn't anything really remotely pornographic about the images. In contrast, you can find nudie magazines and DVDs in China, with sexually explicit photos on the covers, pretty much on every street corner, it seems, between the sex-toy shops and magazine and DVD stands. So on the one hand I thought the American actresses weren't wearing enough clothing; on the other, they were merely teases. 

Then I noticed another thing happening: After he decided there wasn't much of interest to be seen in the photos of the women, the guard started more closely scrutinizing the photos of the male celebrities featured. Then he chose an issue of Men's Health to check out. The cover featured a headless buffed-out man's body. He spent what I felt a fairly good deal of time checking out the abs. He seemed to be fascinated, perhaps admiring, comparing himself. It was at that point that I started thinking about how I'm not bombarded with the images of women that I am bombarded with in the States. I'm not sure that this is true for everybody in China but I'm guessing it might be--we don't have the dozens of gossip magazines awaiting us at every checkout line at every supermarket here, or the endless hours of celebrity-gossip TV programs (that I know of; on the other hand, I don't watch TV, so I could be wrong), and so forth. 

I read, many years back, an article that cited a study that found that women who spend 30 minutes looking at a fashion/beauty magazine felt significantly worse about their bodies than they did before looking at the magazine. I guess you're going to naturally compare yourself to others, and when the images presented are idealized images of supposed perfection, you're always going to come up short.

This body-image stuff is supposed to be trivial, but I've seen countless examples of it affecting women--and men--who are intelligent, analytical individuals. Any Western woman in China who's tried to shop for clothes--unless she's considered small in the West--has probably experienced the overwhelming emotions of being confronted with the fact that she's too big to fit into anything in the entire store. 

Recently we decided to run a 'shopping guide for the Western woman in Chengdu' story for the magazine. The idea was to run the addresses of all the secret spots for clothes foreign women have discovered over the years. I put our intern on the beat, as she had just arrived in the city and said she enjoyed shopping. Perhaps it was a cruel assignment on my part, given that she probably had no idea what she was in store for, and I did, having had a traumatic shopping experience within weeks of my first arriving in China years ago that turned me off any attempt to buy clothes for the next several years. 

On that day, my roommate--a Beijinger who had studied abroad in England for two years--invited me to come shopping with her after work. I gladly accepted, eager to have a local help me navigate the stores since my one attempt at finding shoes earlier was botched, I thought, by my inability to speak Chinese (I later found out it had nothing to do with language barrier and everything to do with my size 9 feet). We went to various stores, with her trying on lots of things and looking fabulous in them, and me, just looking for a pair of jeans, not being able to pull anything all the way over my thighs or zip them up fully. Finally one of the shopkeepers handed me a larger pair, and I celebrated that I was able to get them all the way on--until I stepped out of the dressing room to look in the mirror and realized they were men's jeans. After that I realized, at a U.S. size 8 or 10, I was just too big for Chinese clothes, and I guess the epiphany was written all over my face because my roommate--who several years after we parted ways, I realized was extremely aware and perceptive--said something to the effect of, "You're upset, aren't you?"

I should have been forewarned when, the summer before I left for China, I happened to see the tag (which read XXL) on the jacket of a friend from Beijing who was studying in the States. She wasn't thin, but she definitely wasn't fat, and I couldn't imagine her wearing anything bigger than an American medium.

I remember going shopping with friends here who've had similar experiences and shown similar upset; and most foreign women I talk to seem to be of the opinion trying to shop here is a waste of time. And while this applies generally to Western women of non-Asian descent, I've heard even ABC friends say they can't fit into the clothes here. On the other hand, my white friends also seem to shrug it off as a disparity between Western and Asian sizes and body types. But those of us who are of (even partial) Asian descent can't so easily hide behind that curtain. At least I started feeling some sort of frustration along those lines.

Years later I'm perhaps a couple sizes smaller, the natural result of a more active lifestyle, daily bike riding, climbing stairs, and making a conscious decision to do some sort of more rigorous exercise regularly, and it's one of the few times in my life I feel quite OK with my body. And I can find clothes in most any shop here that fit, although usually only if they're XL or XXL--and I'm OK with that. 

My size 9 feet, on the other hand, are a different matter altogether, and no amount of exercising are going to shrink them!

Monday, July 7, 2008

not the way

this is not the way.

why does the mainstream media support the public's apparent belief that they can continue to live the lifestyle they've been accustomed to?

cleaning out your trunk, avoiding left turns, etc. as advised, are not going to save the world, and probably not even your pocketbook, either.

we need change, on a large-scale, and fast.

get out of your car.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

disappearing orangutans + offshore drilling

Today's disconcerting news is that not only are the world's only wild populations of orangutans disappearing at an alarming rate (I mentioned this phenomenon briefly in an article I wrote for the current issue of LOUDmouth) no thanks to the global palm-oil industry, but also suddenly Americans who are "angry" over $4 gas are in favor of offshore drilling.

First, the orangutans. Of all the world problems we're creating and facing today, and although I am vegetarian, protecting animals hasn't been an issue that particularly resonates with me. (Hell, I haven't even gone to visit the pandas once the three years I've been in Chengdu.) But the orangutans get to me. Not the orangutans themselves, perhaps, but the scenario that led to this outcome: a huge worldwide demand for palm oil. Why? Palm oil was once touted as an environmentally friendly, do-good, alternative component of many daily-use products, ranging from cooking to hygiene and even to bio-fuel. The trees that produce palm are grown mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia. So, naturally, deforestation began because there was a resource that could be converted to cash when sold to the West. Unfortunately for the orangutans, that meant their natural habitat was being destroyed as quickly as loggers could cut down the trees. The AP article plays up the fact that environmental education needs to be put into place at the local level, which, sure, is true--but completely fails to mention any responsibility on the part of the consumers and the parties responsible for driving demand.

Second, the offshore drilling. Now, I don't know that much about the potential negative consequences of offshore drilling beyond the obvious, but a) I have to assume that there was a reason for the moratorium placed in 1981, so why is that reason suddenly now irrelevant because some Americans are angry over $4 gas; b) At the rate we're (the global we, with an especially long finger pointing at the U.S., who according to this article, uses a quarter of all the oil we consume) consuming oil, no matter how much we find, there will never be enough; and c) Who the hell do these people think they are?

The crux of the problem is that people can't seem to see past the end of the gas nozzle on this. As long as they can get in their cars and go where they want to go at the price they've been accustomed to paying for decades, they don't care. But as soon as it gets inconvenient, or more expensive, they're ready to go to the ends of the earth--places that were formerly forbidden--to search for more. This is no way to address the problem. Whether or not these new areas yield tons of oil, it's still a finite resource. Whether or not offshore drilling has disastrous consequences on the environment, it's not going to yield an eternal spring of oil that can keep the entire Western world and add a growing number of people in "developing nations" behind their steering wheels and living as decadently as Americans in the latter half of the 20th century. Times are changing, and it's time to get used to it.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Oh Man, Do I Feel Sorry for You ...

A few things I've read in the Western media recently have made me cringe:

First, this one. Makes me feel deep, deep pity and sorrow when I read about how these families have had their beach vacations and exotic bath washes stolen from them.

9 in 10 see rising gas prices causing family hardship

By ALAN FRAM, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — Four dollar a gallon gas has stolen a beach vacation in South Carolina from Julie Jacobs' family and exotic bath washes from Angela Crawford. Phil English had to sell his beloved but fuel-guzzling red pickup.

Like a plague that does not discriminate by economic class, race or age, soaring gas prices are inflicting pain throughout the U.S. Nine in 10 are expecting the ballooning costs to squeeze them financially over the next half year, an Associated Press-Yahoo! News poll said Monday.

Nearly half think that hardship will be serious. To cope, most are driving less, easing off the air conditioning and heating at home and cutting corners elsewhere. Half are curtailing vacation plans; nearly as many are considering buying cars that burn less gas.


Then, there's this one which at the end provides a comparison of the price of a Starbucks cappuccino to that of gasoline--an analogy I've heard before, from my sister, whose friend once suggested she just dump a latte into her gas tank. Again, I feel really sympathy for these folks with their having to choose between $4 coffee or $4 gasoline. Boo hoo hoo.

"Starbucks coffees don't come cheap, and with Americans doling out more and more money to fill up their cars, many have decided to forego their frothy coffees.

A medium cappuccino at Starbucks costs 3.69 dollars in Washington, or the equivalent of 29.50 dollars per gallon.

Gasoline seems a bargain at 4.08 per gallon.

Twenty-eight percent of US motorists have stopped going to Starbucks or other coffee houses entirely, and 21 percent are going less often due to skyrocketing gas prices, a survey conducted last month by Kelley's Blue Book showed.

For Conley, giving up coffee is as much out of the question as is giving up driving.

'I wish it were as easy as cutting back, but I am deep in the grips of caffeine addiction,' Conley told AFP."

-from an AP report about Starbucks announcement that it would close 600 of its U.S. shops