How Do You Say ‘Egg MacMuffin’ Meal In Chinese?

April 19th, 2013

So, in the 30 years since I studied Mandarin Chinese, there have been many changes in technology, culture, politics and economics. And so I’ve found my vocabulary extremely lacking, especially when it comes to food. “Sandwich only, not the meal deal”? “Multigrain bread, not white”? “Is that orange juice from concentrate or fresh”? To say nothing of all the new Internet/computer stuff that didn’t exist back then. Aaaaaaahhhhh!!!

And, they say things slightly differently here up north than in Southern China. Steamed white rice is ‘bai fan’ in the south, but ‘mi fan’ in the north.

And I’m constantly reminded of how much I’ve forgotten, both in terms of Chinese characters and how to ‘think’ in Chinese. The grammar is pretty simple, but thinking in Chinese less so. At least my ear is pretty well tuned now. I can pick out all the words, but still have trouble figuring out the meaning. Who came up with this crazy language any way?

‘Forbidden Palace’? Not To Chinese Tour Groups

April 19th, 2013

OK, the ‘Forbidden City’ is artistically and historically every bit as impressive as billed. It’s fun pretending your are the ‘Son of Heaven’ and have thousands of people groveling before you…

But seriously, there are way way WAY to many Chinese tour groups there. My gawd! It’s like being in a rugby scrum everywhere all the time. And they gabber on endlessly in very loud voices. C’mon can’t I pay more and have a pleasant tour? What kind of Communist country is this, anyway?!?

So That’s Why They Call It The ‘Great Wall’

April 19th, 2013

We chose MuTianYu for our Great Wall tour; touristy enough to have a gondola & chairlift to get you to the top, but not so touristy that it was irritatingly tacky. Lots, but not hordes, of tourists and most were Chinese. And not too many vendors on the wall itself. This section of the wall is restored, but you can sneak out on to parts that show their true age.

You can imagine how impressive I must have been in its prime. It also was easy to imagine how much labor it took to build. Amazing engineering with a high cost and ultimately pointless militarily. But nice to look at.

And fun to toboggan down. Yes, we rode the (German made) toboggan down a steel chute. The guy at the top ran things with military discipline and a sense of humor, which came came in handy during the long pauses when someone did something they shouldn’t have and sliding came to a halt. But when I and Jeff finally did get started, it was quite fun. For once, I didn’t go fast enough for him…

You Say ‘Beijing’ I Say ‘Peking’ We all say ‘Smog’

April 19th, 2013

While the Guangzhou & Beijing airports and the flight itself were all fine, service by the Hainan Airways staff was a bit chaotic. The beverage carts had different offerings, and the meal service trays were not evenly prepared. I was missing my wet-napkin, while my sister’s tray had three. Jeff did not get any silverware, nor his dessert cake (no great loss there). But we and our luggage all got to Beijing together.

There’s no doubt, Beijing’s air quality leaves much to be desired. As our driver to the Great Wall said, “Over the 40 years I’ve lived here, the city has gotten cleaner & more beautiful, but also more expensive and smoggy.” We tried not to think about it too much while we toured the sights.

One of the key reasons for the smog is that the Chinese have skipped right to big cars — every bit as big and as many as in the U.S. And while it seems, at first, that drivers in Beijing are calmer and more respectful of traffic laws/rules/conventions, this is merely a veneer. When push comes to shove, they are just as crazy as drivers in Guangzhou. We saw a few fender benders, BT nothing major until we came back from the Great Wall. Then we saw a huge jam that left a taxi without its trunk, a tour bus with a smashed front window, and a big Police van smashed up on one side and straddling the guardrail!

THAT’S A Fish?

April 19th, 2013

Our final dinner in Guangzhou was at a well-known seafood restaurant located in the middle of the town’s fish market. Before eating, we had a chance to walk around the market and saw more kinds of seafood than ever. The had sand/mantis shrimp that were four times bigger than I thought possible — that is about 18 inches long! And there were these giant pink ‘worms’ for lack of a better description, about 8-12 inches long — no one among us knew what they were or what to do with them. (Well, of course you eat them, but how — and why?)

The final banquet was quite lavish in terms of the food. Crab, sand shrimp heads, shrimp head soup, sand shrimp sashimi, and perfectly cooked abalone. And there was plenty of Chinese White Lightening, which got some people (not me nor Jeff) into quite a bit of trouble.

Finally, the evening brought into this world a new Choy — Xavier HingWah Tan-Choy. He was a healthy 7 lbs plus and he, mom Jenny and dad Robert (eldest son of my eldest brother) are all doing well, and possibly all at home by the time this pos gets to you. Xavier shares his birthday with his gran(ma) — super special!!!

White Lightening in Chinese Is Trouble In English

April 16th, 2013

Our host — Mr. Cai Fu (a distant relative thanks to the shared last name, which is pronounced ‘Choy’ in Cantonese, but ‘Cai’ in Mandarin) — not only likes spicy food, but could drink like a fish. The local drink of choice is home-brewed liquor called simply in Chinese as ‘bai jiu’ or ‘White Wine.’ White moonshine more like it. At the first dinner he hosted, we polished off two bottles of 96 proof stuff thanks to many rounds of toasts with thimble-sized glasses involving himself and quite a few others, including yours truly — no problem.

The same took place the next day when we were hosted not only by my namesake official, but also by the town’s vice deputy, the No. 2 man in town. While the home brew this time was ‘only’ about 92 proof, it was quite smooth and tasty when drank from the thimble glasses. But then he called for small brandy snifters, which he then filled at least half full and then sought out one-on-one toasting partners — yours truly again amongst the lucky few (remind me nerve to sit next to the host at a Chinese meal). We took care of quite a bit of the giant glass jar of the stuff, and several of us were quite buzzed (yes, me included).

Which put both of us in the right frame of mind for a tour of the new Choy/Cai clan ancestral hall being built in town. Quite the project, which is of course going to be bigger and better than either of the temples next to it. We scrounged up 1,000 RMB (about $150 US) on the spot, which would get us a name on the roll of donors. We gave in our father’s name which would make both him and mom happy.

Still More Villages?! OMG How Many of These Things Are There???

April 16th, 2013

Just one more village on the final day of ‘Rooting,’ as the organizers call it. While local officials dug out the family genealogy books, some of us explored. We decided to try out the ‘soup buns’ advertised in to roadside stalls, hoping that would be like the yummy Shanghai style would dumplings. One of the signs promised ‘Tianjin’ style chicken soup buns, the other was less clear. The first was a triangular steamed bun filled with a sweet sugar crystal-crunchy paste of no distinct flavor. The Tianjin chicken soup bun was, indeed, filled with a lump of ground chicken meat in a pool of soup; not bad, but nothing to write home about.

The relative whose village we were visiting found several second cousins and discovered her aunt was well-known in the village because she had visited and stayed there. A ‘Rock Star’ for an aunt!

By this time we had had our fill of family villages. The experiences we’re all quite moving and often developed in surprising ways and directions, but seriously, we had had enough of chain-smoking village officials and overly curious locals.

My House Is Bigger Than Your House

April 13th, 2013

In the afternoon, we visited Zili Village a UNESCO World Heritage site. We had a Chinese guide, and, guess what, I had to translate. Of course we asked her to speak slowly, but that naturally didn’t last too long. Shannon, Mike’s wife who’s lived in Shanghai for the past two years helped but left most of it to me, who studied Chinese 30 years ago.

The village buildings were concrete made in the 1920s. They are called ‘watch towers’ because they are 3-5 stories tall and have defensive features, such as steel doors and gun ports. The one we visited clearly was a rich man’s because it had a very heavy steel door imported from Germany, concrete imported from England, glass panels imported from Italy, and whiskey from the US even though Prohibition was in force.

I also liked the fact that each floor had its own kitchen, mainly to keep domestic peace among his THREE wives and the kids.

‘So why is this one 5 stories and the others shorter?’ someone asked. No good reason other than he could afford it and he wanted everyone else in the village to know it.

And More Villages…

April 9th, 2013

Today, we did four villages. The village of my Leong cousins was prosperous and well organized — which could also be said of their ancestral temple and family records. Very neat, easy to find what you need, and very Chinese.

In contrast, the Choy family village was very prosperous, but less concerned with family records. Out ancestral village does have the advantage of being inhabited only by families named Choy. Unfortunately, the village elder did not recall our great grandfather nor our grandfather. And the Choys apparently have not bothered to keep genealogy records . They also have not kept up the ancestral hall — it was a mess and falling down.

As we stood there, the Choy villagers proceeded to have a long and VERY loud ‘discussion’ about which branch of the family we belonged to and which current house, if any, might have pictures of us. As it happened, the Choy clan was gathering this day because the mother of one branch was very ill and might pass at any time. It just so happened that this branch belonged to the brother of my great grandfather. Thy remember my father visiting in the 1980’s and remember where the old family pictures used to hang. They took us to my great grandfather’s house and we did find his & his wife’s pictures in the place of honor. What my family lacks in organization, we make up for in enthusiasm. Our heads were ringing with their constant discussion with us and amongst themselves, as by his time practically the entire Choy village ad come out of their homes to see what the ruckus was.

And we will had two more villages to visit…

Visiting The Ancestral Villages

April 9th, 2013

So we come to the whole point of his trip across the Pacific: finding our roots. China has changed so much under the hybrid Communist politics/Capitalist economy system that I wasn’t sure what to expect a village tucked within a modern city of 7 million would look like. Well, most ‘villages’ have preserved at least the big stereotypical Chinese street gates at the main roads into their area. So finding the ‘village’ is relatively easy. Finding some distant relative and/or homes or structures that date back to the desired ancestor much less so.

The easiest was to find things in the village here we had common roots and the ancestral temples were not only well maintained, but undergoing ambitious renovation. The local representative pulled this 28 volume set of ancestral lineage books and relatively quickly found our common ancestor. Plus they had created a family tree on a marble wall in the courtyard.

Not so easy was finding info on the maternal grandparents of one of my cousins. All she had was a name, a birthdate and a village name. Here’s where typical extensive Chinese records of neighborhood comings and goings play a key role. The local village elders did remember something about a man with the same last name going to Hawaii but never heard anything more. The year of birth they had recorded, unfortunately, did not match what my cousin had. The month&day, however, did and we decided that someone did not tell the US immigration official the truth — not really any different than today. What ensued was a mass multi person discussion of which people in the village may be related to my cousin. (Here’s where detailed Communist records on who lives/lived in which house played a key role.) She did find her ancestral temple and did find out that several people in the village were related to her (but weren’t home). A pretty good result from such a vague start.