Indivdiual versus collective

As you are watching the Olympic Games…and if you have even a smidgen of curiosity about one of the primary differences between East and West, I urge you to check out this op-ed piece by David Brooks in the New York Times titled Harmony and the Dream.

It’s the best and most concise distillation that I’ve run across recently analizying the gap between the cultural mindsets of societies that value the individual and those that value a collective.

Cost of educational e(quality)

Following the pervasive, highly pressurized third and final year of middle school in China, preparing for the entrance examination, Jenny’s daughter will enter high school this fall. Top scores equal entrance to the top schools. And in China, entering the top high schools is deemed to be the best path to top universities, which all hope will translate into a “bright and happy” future.

There are two “top” high schools here in Xiangfan – No. 4 and No. 5. Though most locals appear to favor No. 5, which just completed construction of a new campus that opens this year, to the tune of 200 million RMB ($29 million). After the entrance examination is held, all parents and students hold their breath waiting to find out the results. But, even more important, they anticipate the school’s announcement of minimum entrance scores.

Not to worry, however, if your child’s score is less than the minimum, it doesn’t mean they can’t attend the school. It simply means you’ll have to shell out more moolah to secure a spot in that year’s class.

Here’s how it played out this summer…

Anny’s score was 561.5, out of a possible 600. About two weeks later, No. 5 announced that the minimum entrance score was 566. But here’s where the sleight of hand lies. Anny’s middle school is located north of the Han Jiang. There are other school districts south of the river, where the announced entrance requirement is 553. Most of the lingdao (leaders) live south of the river.

If Anny had attended school south of the river, it would have cost only 3,000RMB ($437) to attend No. 5. One of her classmates, who lives next door, scored 571, so her parents only have to pay the same, 3,000RMB. (By the way, these tuition costs are for all three years of high school. You have to pay in full, not year by year.)

This morning Jenny walked across the street to her bank and withdrew 27,000RMB ($4,000) – the tuition for Anny’s three years of high school.

Mei ban fa…

A (fake) Olympic achievement

Some friends invited us over for dinner last night to welcome us back to Xiangfan. Jenny’s best friend, Tian Jingsong (and her husband, Liu Jian) hosted the dinner party at their new home. Aware that one of my favorite local dishes is longxia (crawfish), Laodi and his wife (Tian Jinsong’s older sister, Dimei) had worked hard all day preparing this and many other dishes for us.

(Laodi means younger brother, Dimei means younger sister; they call me Laoge (older brother) because I’m the eldest of the group. Laodi, by the way, is a retired Air Force pilot, an interesting man who’s also interested in learning more about this laowai laoge. And the funny thing is that Jenny doesn’t even know their given names since the Chinese typically address each other by a relationship name.)

The table talk naturally turned to the Olympics, starting with the opening ceremony. Never mind that the 29 footsteps, representing the 29th Olympic games, turned out to be fake fireworks; digital creations that took a year to produce and inserted into the live broadcast…everyone had been suitably impressed with the spectacle. And never mind that it cost $300 million, compared to Greece’s $30 million in 2004. A certain amount of ostentation was necessary for China’s debut on the world stage.

Anyway, given all the pre-game hype about whether China can best America this time in gold medals, medal count, or both…I asked everyone about their opinion. The general consensus surprised me somewhat.

Doesn’t matter, they said. Even if China does win more gold medals (which is more important than the medal count, as all cultures place little to no emphasis on paltry runners-up), it would be just a jia chengjiu…a fake achievement. Because everyone knows the Chinese government recruits, trains and supports its athletes in a manner that is, well, downright unfair.

As I have been watching the coverage here, when CCTV lists current medal standings, the ranking is ordered by the number of gold medals. As of this moment: China–11, USA–7. On the New York Times website, since I can’t watch NBC coverage, the ranking is ordered by total medal count, currently USA–21, China–18.

Shave and a haircut…6 kuai

Sometimes the cost of living entails more than just money…

Getting a haircut has never been one of my favorite activities…an event to be tolerated, yet I usually left (mostly) satisfied with the result back in the states. After several years in China, though, it has devolved into a particularly frustrating process.

For no matter how you try to explain what you want, even if you bring a native to speak for you…it won’t happen. Yes, you can get a haircut that includes a wonderfully relaxing massage of your scalp, neck, shoulders and arms…all for about 20-25 kuai. But you will still leave the barbershop with your hair style (if not also dyed jet black) looking like Hu Jintao.

The first time I got a haircut here, I explained I wanted it short. After six months, it was on the long side of shaggy and, besides, it was heading into summer. Time for a cooler do. Using sign language (thumb and forefinger) as I was alone and my Putonghua minimal, I showed the laoban (boss) that I wanted my hair about half an inch long, everywhere, not just on the sides. [Cultural aside: sometimes the laoban will cut your hair to give the foreigner “face,” or mianzi.]

Ta shuo, “Haode, haode, haode. Mei wen ti.” He said good, good, good. No problem.

I sat back and closed my eyes being, after all, quite relaxed from the massage. Snip. Snip, snip, snip. A few more snips. Something was wrong. I opened my eyes to watch. Snip. Snip, snip, snip. A few more snips.

“Deng, deng,” I said. Wait. He was cutting mere wisps from the shag hanging around my head.

“Wo yao duo jian dian.” I want more cut. “Zai duo dian.” Cut much more. And again with the sign language.

“Haode, haode, haode. Mei wen ti.”

Snip. Snip, snip, snip.

I would have needed a micrometer to measure the length of the cuttings dribbled around my shoulders. We went through this process four or five times. About an hour later I left with my hair somewhat shorter around the sides and a titch shorter on top…but visibly poofy, pompadourish…and looking suspiciously like the previously mentioned political leader of the Middle Kingdom.

I later decided my sign language meant one thing to me, but the complete opposite to him…in that “this much” meant merely a trim, not the whack job I had wanted.

The overall experience and the ensuing result hasn’t changed much over the years. It has been a grit your teeth, grin and bear it endeavor each and every time. Or, as the Chinese would say for this (and most every) situation, “Mei ban fa.” Nothing you can do.

C’est la vie. That’s life.

It being the height of summer now and another six months past the last fiasco, I decided it was time for an end around tactic, similar to what I sometimes did back home…drag out the horse shears, set it for a buzz cut and do it myself. I’m also painfully aware that I’m sorely in need now of a comb-over (not!) or a rug (never!), so it’s finally time to switch, permanently, to avoid ring around the pate.

[Historical aside: the first time I went home for a visit, now thoroughly “re-educated” in regard to Chinese hair fashion, I culled through my belongings in storage, found the horse shears and packed them for the return trip to China. Only to discover, much to my dismay, they powered up in a scary overdrive on the current here…even with a voltage regulator/converter thingy. On my next trip back to the states I donated the shears to what’s left of Legacy Farm.]

During the recent and rather hectic move by plane, train and automobile (taxis) from Guangzhou to Xiangfan, via Wuhan, I tried shopping several times for shears. Including going to Gome, the Chinese version of Best Buy, where they carry only one model, a Phillips brand, that looks and handles like a toy, but costs 350 kuai. I passed.

We haven’t had time yet to find the barbershop supply shopping street here in Xiangfan. (FYI, if you want some kind of thing in China…be it clothes, cloth, motorcycles, bicycles, furniture…there’s a street where that’s all they sell, in every shop on the street.) But I still wanted that cooler do, so I dragged Jenny to the nearest and cheapest barbershop. Man or woman. Long hair or short hair. A haircut is five kuai.

Before we went, I told her exactly what I wanted. So that there could be no misunderstanding, I said I wanted my hair cut like a heshang, a monk. A Buddhist monk. A Daoist monk. In any language, that’s short. Very, very short. The next closest thing to a shave, dui ma? Right?

“Keyi a,” she said. Okay. “Mei wen ti a,” she said. No problem.

Which is a sure fire omen there will be a problem…

To make a long hair story short, my hair is short now. But not monk short. I knew there was a problem when the young man started using a comb to keep the cut even, instead of simply running the shears along my scalp. I mentioned this to Luo Ying and she spoke to him. After a five minute dialogue too fast for me to follow (and there’s no such thing as a quick answer in China), he simply shrugged and said this way, his way, was better for the laowai.

Sigh…

Finally, if you’ve been paying attention, I said haircuts at this barbershop are five kuai, yet the title of this post suggests six kuai…for a “shave” and a haircut.

Over the past 10 years, my toufa (head hair) began migrating from the top of my head…to my beard (much heavier than in my youth), to my chest, to the inside of my nose, the inside of my ears, the lobes of my ears and (uggh!) the small of my back. And likely other destinations unknown and they can remain unknown.

The barber used a straight-edge razor to shave the hairline on the nape of my neck. He also shaved my earlobes. Definitely a first, which cost the extra yi kuai.

After we left the barbershop, despite the heat and the humidity of the night, we went for a walk in a nearby park to watch the women dancing. (More on that another time.) Jenny commented that it was the first time she’d seen me in a good mood after getting my hair cut.

I smiled and told her, “Shi ya, dang ran le.” Yes, of course. Because it was the first time in China that I managed to avoid leaving the barbershop with a “Hu do.”

Shanghaied to Xiangfan

Puttering around on the train, killing time…here’s a little slice of the countryside between Wuhan and Xiangfan…

It’s hard to capture much of interest, or much in the way of good video, on a train whizzing along at around 120kph. This is mostly a test, only a test, of embedding video in the blog. While you should be able to see many rice fields (and some ponds with lotus plants in the foreground), if you pause here and there you’ll note the occasional farmer and a few water buffalo.

Better than Mom’s apple pie

Mom’s Beef Croquettes

Filling:
8 cups roast beef, cooked and diced
4 cups binding béchamel sauce
salt
pepper
spring onion
lemon juice
2-3 cups ritz cracker crumbs or bread crumbs

2-3 whipped eggs

* Béchamel—binding
1 cup milk
3 tbsp. butter
1/3 cup flour
1 carrot slice
1 onion slice
1-2 bay leaves
2 cloves
4-5 peppercorns
1 mace
1 egg

* Ratio: 2 cups meat to 1 cup sauce

Let milk stand for at least one hour with veggies and spices, then bring to a short simmer, strain and keep over low heat.

Melt butter with flour and cook over low heat for 3-4 minutes until smooth. Remove from heat, pour about 1/4 cup milk in, stirring vigorously, then continue to add rest of milk while stirring. Replace over medium heat and stir while cooking until sauce thickens. Season to taste, add the egg and mix very well. Cook for 2-3 more minutes.

Croquettes: Season roast beef with salt, pepper, spring onion and lemon to taste. Mix in béchamel sauce and chill overnight.

Take a generous spoonful and use hands to form an oversized egg-shaped, cylindrical croquette. Roll croquette in crumbs, then egg, then crumbs. Chill overnight before cooking or freeze.

Deep fry in peanut oil at 350° until golden brown. If croquettes are frozen, thaw partially, not entirely before cooking—about 2-3 hours. Some folks might enjoy a rich, brown gravy spooned over the croquettes; my family preferred drizzling with freshly squeezed lemon juice while piping hot.

Makes 36-48 croquettes; frozen croquettes keep quite well in freezer bags.

I have no idea if this is an “original” American recipe. But this was my, by request, traditional birthday dinner. I always thought I was pretty smart because it meant the family got to have roast beef one night and then beef croquettes made from the left over roast another night. My mother made this dish for me for many years. She’s American, so I figure that makes this an American dish.

Chocolate cheesecake fit for the gods

Chocolate Swirl Cheesecake

Crust:
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/3 cup powdered sugar
12 tbsp melted unsalted butter

Filling:
2 lbs cream cheese (@ room temp.)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp lemon juice
5 whole eggs (@ room temp.)
4 oz. semi-sweet melted chocolate

Crust: Butter and flour a 9-inch springform cake pan. Set aside. Mix graham cracker crumbs, powdered sugar and butter together. Press crust into bottom and sides of cake pan. Refrigerate while preparing the filling.

Filling: Mix cream cheese on low speed for 10 min. Add sugar and lemon juice. Mix to blend. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Pour all but one cup of filling into prepared crust. Melt chocolate and add slowly to reserved cup of filling. Use a pastry tube and starting from center, draw a spiral onto cake batter. Using the tip of a knife and starting from the center, lightly pull the knife tip through the spiral as if cutting cheesecake into quarters. Repeat, “cutting” quarters in half, from center to rim or, to alter the design, draw from rim to center.

Bake at 300° for about 1 hour. Cake should be golden brown, pulling away from sides of pan and barely firm in the center. Allow to cool for several hours before placing in refrigerator overnight.

Variations: Try substituting sambuca or amaretto for lemon juice!!