Archive for the ‘Chinese Culture and Korean Culture’ Category

How can one explain the potency of stinky tofu’s smell to someone who has never smelled it?

I don’t know if it’s possible, lol.

I smelled it for the first time in South Korea, 2005. I was teaching middle school and walked into the cafeteria for lunch when I was assaulted by an awful and foul stench . . .

At the time I remember turning to a Korean English co-teacher and saying, “Is someone washing dirty laundry? It smells like dirty socks are being washed in the kitchen? And . . . other bad things too . . .” She thought my reaction was quite amusing.

After filling my tray with other foods and getting a bowl full of the stinky tofu I sat down with several other Korean teachers–all of whom were watching me with GREAT INTEREST to see how I’d react to trying the stinky tofu.

I ate it–and it was GOOD! In fact, it was awesome and I sometimes miss it over here in China.

The stinky tofu in China, however, in contrast to Korean stinky tofu . . . well, let’s just say that the pungency power rating of its smell is off the charts! It’s ‘nuclear stinky tofu’ in terms of its olfactory assault capabilities, and Julianne and I have yet to try it.

If and when I get a chance to try Chinese stinky tofu I’ll definitely blog about it . . . the problem is working up the courage to eat something that in my experience with foreign foods only compares to the smell of “skate” (‘honga’ (Korean name) aka sting-ray) that Hans Zimmerman tried while he was in South Korea for his Bizarre Foods TV show . . .

Julianne has pretty much said she doesn’t want to try it. As for me . . . well, if I was willing to eat the “skate” I should be willing to try the stink tofu here.

Time will tell . . . lol.


Read Full Post »

The Restaurant, originally uploaded by Serenity in China.

Julianne and I were taken out to a buffet restaurant in China a few days ago by a Chinese couple we are friends with.

Some observations about our experience there . . . with so many people inside the restaurant it was a ‘everyone for themselves’ kind of dynamic when it came to getting food at the buffet tables.

I get why this is necessary because with so many people all wanting to get the same thing at the same time (as in a particular food tray), or do the same thing at the same time (as in use the soda fountains), if you act like a Canadian (which I AM) and let someone go ahead of you if you’re unsure who go there first or who is next in line (next in line–ha, I kill me!), then you end up waiting while 20 Chinese people just go and keep on going as the-idiot-Canadian-stands-there-not-wanting-to-be-rude-and-push-in-cut-someone-off . . . I only did that ONCE, however, as I’ve now been overseas long enough to know not to, for example, hold a door open for someone in a shopping mall in Korea thus becoming/transforming in the Koreans’ minds a doorman–yes, it happened to me.

I don’t mind jockeying for position or having to cut off some little kid or polite and shy woman anymore since that seems to be the cultural norm and expectation–I do mind, however, having to fight to find a pair of tongs so that I can actually put food on my plate while going down the buffet tables. Looking around I saw that several people had just picked up the tongs off their resting plates and were using them as their own PERSONAL TONGS while the other half of us looking to load our plates had to wait for an opportunity to snatch up the tongs once a person had finished with them.

My Canadian cultural ‘DNA’ at first told me in a panicked voice that it would be rude to take a pair of tongs and use them just for myself to get food from different trays–but after standing there for what seemed like several minutes but was only one I told the voice to shut up and grabbed tongs and didn’t put them down till I’d got my plate loaded . . .

If I’d been able to I would have taken a picture at the soda fountains where it looked like a multi-body-octopus’ arms were flying in and out and all around the nozzles with glasses being held by different people trying to fill them up . . .

Anyways, the food was really good, and for Julianne and I the general experience was the closest we’ve had to being in a ‘western style’ food and service environment in China.


Read Full Post »

Last night Julianne and I went out for Korean food and we saw that the Korean restaurant that sits outside at street level was doing renovations and prepping a new sign. We always eat at the other Korean restaurant that is inside the building and just below ground level–I guess competition between the two locations that are only 25 feet a part might heat up soon . . .

Julianne and I might try the renovated restaurant’s food to see what it’s like but we typically tend to give our patronage to a location that has good food, good service (for inside China at least), and prices are decent (for inside China) in relation to serving sizes and food quality.

I think there is also supposed to be a third Korean restaurant in another area of downtown Changsha but we haven’t bothered to check it out yet. Maybe a Korean restaurant review of 3 locations might be in order in the near future . . .


Read Full Post »

Drying Fish in China I, originally uploaded by Serenity in China.

During the five years and change that I lived and taught English in South Korea I don’t remember seeing as many lines hung with drying fish as I’m seeing here in Changhsa, China.

Maybe it’s because I didn’t have my Canon 400D during the time I lived on Ganghwa Island, or because later on I was stressed out and tired by my work schedule and just didn’t notice . . . but even with the Pentax point and shoot camera I had I was still taking a lot of pictures–I just don’t have any of drying fish on a line or hook like I’ve seen here.

Anyways, seeing the more traditional ways of preserving foods is fantastic–and makes me think about how much we’ve lost with the modernization of food.


Read Full Post »

Today is Mooncake festival day in China . . . and it rained for most of the day.  It was also really cold and windy–at least relative to the high 30s and low 40s heat and humidity that we’ve been experiencing.  I think the temperature was in the mid-20s but it felt ‘colder’ than that relative to 40-something.  It was a really NICE break!

Unfortunately, Julianne’s foot is still in no condition to walk more than a short distance and time.  Her foot combined with the rain pretty much kept us in our apartment most of the day.  Around 4pm, we decided to go do a food and beverages run to Metro (it’s like a COSTCO store).

On our way out of the apartment we ran into two other foreign teachers, and we all decided to take a taxi together.  It was chilly enough with the wind that I almost went up to grab a sweater but I didn’t.  One of the girls was from Arkansas, USA, so she had a jacket on.  We had to wait about 10 minutes for an unoccupied taxi, and during that time the neighborhood people walking by, and cars driving by, oggled the group of four foreigners . . .

Finally, we get a taxi and drive to Metro.  The parking lot was packed, and we realized that Mooncake festival day is on par with Chuseok in South Korea.  I should have brought my camera with me to take a picture of the parking lot and all the people inside . . . but the upload speeds to my blog are still a major handicap (I’m still mulling over how I’m going to deal with that).

Walking inside we go to pass through a gate and are stopped by one of the service people.  She points at my backpack, and another teacher’s backpack, and gestures for us to take them off and give them to her while speaking fast Chinese.  I found this peculiar because the FOUR other times I’ve visited the store I was never asked to do this.  I comply with the ‘you’re-foreign-white-possibly-a-criminal’ profiling that seemed to be happening cause we were in a group, and hand over my bag and get a ticket for it.  I look at the shelf where our bags are stored and see no other bags–meanwhile the store has hundreds of customers.  I tell Julianne and our two friends that the next time I’m there, and it’s not insanely busy (another ‘possible’ reason for heightened security), that if they ask me for my backpack again and I see another Chinese person with a bag or backpack that I’m going to go back to the security counter and escort the service person to where the Chinese person is and ask them about the double-standard . . . actually, I probably won’t do that, but the fantasy helps me let it go, lol.

We walk around and pick up the foods and drinks and other stuff that we came to buy, and then head to the checkouts.  Ohhhhhh god, each checkout line had about 20+ people waiting in it, and there are about 15 checkouts.  The speed with which these lines are processed is SLOW.  We had about 15 people in front of us, and it took nearly 45 minutes.  Add to this that the computers look like they use a DOS system, and the printers are the old school 1980’s type with the rolling wheels and holes on both sides of the paper that spin and spit the paper out . . . yeah, it’s slow.

When we first got into line a late twenties Chinese man turned around to see who was speaking English and boy did we make his day.  First he gave each of us a good once over.  He especially liked the fact that Julianne and two other foreign women were with me.  Then he examined every item we had in our shopping cart.

At first he tried to be a little inconspicuous with his staring, but after the first two minutes his neck must have been bothering him so he turned his entire body so that it was facing square onto us as a group with the cash register now directly behind him.

I gave him 3 minutes of staring time, and then I looked him in the eye with a smiling but firm teacher stare and said, “Hi. What are you doing? Turn around please.”  I put my two fingers to my eyes, and made a gesture that meant staring, then I crossed my arms in a no/stop signal, and finally spun my fingers around and pointed at him.  He had the good grace to smile a little, with a bit of shame and ‘oh yeah, maybe what I’m doing is not so polite,’ and he turned around.

I think I surprised the other two women with Julianne and I, but I said that if Chinese people would consider his behavior rude, that we should not allow the staring to go on for so long or in so blatant a manner.  (Last week I asked my students during the break time what the rules were for staring in public, and they confirmed that staring for excessively long periods of time in close proximity to a woman is not acceptable behavior in China.)

Anyways, we waited and waited and finally got through the checkout.  Outside it was even colder, and we made our way as fast as possible to the street to find a taxi.  Just as we got there a taxi pulled up and two men in their mid-20s got out.  We really must be a shocking sight for the Chinese people in Changsha when in a group of four cause these guys were totally wide-eyed and in shock to see four ‘aliens’ approach the taxi they were getting out of, lol.  The reactions remind me of the kind of shock that Koreans on Ganghwa Island would have during a summer English camp I was at when 10 foreign teachers would be in the two street hamlet that I taught in; it must have seemed like an invasion or something from War of the Worlds, lol.

This post has kind of organically grown into one about staring . . . so I guess the last thing I’ll say is that Chinese people in the Changsha area (it might be radically different in other regions of China) seem to be more curious in a positive way.  The curiousity, however, in my mind is very different than a lot of the staring I experienced, and Julianne experienced, while in Korea.  Some people have posted comments that they think the fact that I have a shaved head, I’m fat (I prefer to use the term “chubby” but whatever), and Julianne has a very curvy figure and red hair . . . and that that is what draws so much staring . . . but that’s not the issue.

It’s the mild to extreme hostility, and in general negative vibe, that I felt from some/too many Koreans who would stare at us.  I don’t get that sense at ALL in Changsha.  I get a sense of wonderment, awe, curiousity, and sometimes even playfulness.  There were times I’d feel that kind of vibe in Korea too–indeed, some Koreans who would stare at us turned out to be wonderful and friendly people.  But I have to say my own personal view so far on how the staring in China versus Korea contrasts is that it’s far more friendly and relaxed in China, and that in Korea it’s more xenophobic/racist/hostile/negative (and yes, I know the historical context and origins of this phenomena).  For those readers that would say that the kind of energy you project is the kind of energy you get back . . . well, I’d half agree with that, but then go on to say that each person in a cross-cultural interaction produces their own vibe and sometimes it doesn’t matter what kind of vibe you’re projecting–the other person is not influenced.

I’ll finish with saying that the general cultural vibe I feel in Changsha is a friendlier, and slower paced, and more relaxing.  I love it.

I’m hoping that Julianne and I might be able to find out where some Mooncake festival events are tomorrow, and that they’re not too far away.  If so, we’ll go and take our cameras, and I’ll upload some shots to my flickr page.

For now, it’s time to go eat some mooncakes, and enjoy a quiet evening in our apartment.


Read Full Post »

Julianne and I woke up early on our first day in China.  This was kind of crazy because we were both exhausted from all the cleaning, packing, moving, and prepping we’d been doing to leave Korea.  The problem was we didn’t know what time it was (and forgot to use our cell phone clocks), and the sunlight coming into our bedroom woke us up around 7am.

We got up and checked our emails, and tried to sign into facebook one more time–no luck again.

After that we began exploring our apartment until we heard a soft knock at our door.  It was one of the other foreign instructors wanting to know if she could show us where to buy some Chinese breakfast.  We followed her outside, and saw for the first time what everything looked like.

The stairs leading down and out of the apartment were a deep dark blood red–nice, lol.  At the bottom of the staircase was a massive fish tank with 3 large fish of some sort swimming slowly around in it.  Once outside the building we could see a seven foot concrete wall running around the four story apartment buildings (3 small ones inside the compound).  In the center was a sitting area with grass and stone stools and small tables where I was guessing you could eat or sit and relax beneath some trees that ran along the sides of it.

A lane way ran along the concrete wall and at the end of it, beside our building, was a three car garage where the beat up old van sat from the night before.  At the other end of the lane way, about 50 feet away from the garage, was the security office and a large metal gate.  The foreign instructor took us outside the gate and we were standing on the street taking our first look at China in daylight.

A light steady stream of cars, buses, and scooters flowed past us with the what is apparently normal sounds of honking when driving.  On the opposite side of the street from where the apartment compound was there was a long low building with small shops running its entire length.  The sidewalks and exterior walls of the building were dirty grays, browns, and black colors.   The sky was smoggy and grey too.

The foreign instructor took us across the street quickly, Julianne and I both watching furiously in both directions for rogue scooters/cars/buses that might come flying by, to a small dumpling stand sitting just outside what I hesitate to call a ‘shop’ because it lacked shelves or any other things you’d associate with the word ‘shop.’  It looked very stark, somewhat dirty, and simply put the word ‘poor’ came to mind as we stood there looking at the dumpling steamer towers (made of wicker basket material-NOT stainless steel) and a Chinese middle-aged woman standing behind her little set up.

A person walking by came up to the dumpling stand and ordered.  Julianne and I watched as the cook moved sections of the dumpling steamer aside and pulled out different kinds from different levels (I think she had a six or seven high set up).  Our guide then asked us if we were okay with eating dumplings for breakfast, and we said yes.  She asked us how much we wanted to order, and we hesitated because we had no idea how to order and what the serving sizes were or if you just ordered by individual dumpling . . .

We told our guide we were pretty hungry and then in a haphazard fashion she ordered in Chinese for us four different kinds of dumplings, each time glancing at us and asking if we wanted to try a different kind as the Chinese woman would lift up a level of steamer to reveal another type.  Once that was done, the Chinese woman gestured towards a wok filled with oil fried dumplings but we passed on those because of the stories I’d read on the Net about how street vendors use heavily recycled food oil when cooking.  Steamed dumplings, in contrast, looked much more appetizing–and safe!

Back in our apartment, after hiking up four flights of stairs, we sat down and ate while our guide chatted our ears off, lol.  She is from America, had been in China for a year, and was older than I am (I never guess a woman’s age!). After finishing eating, she invited us to go along with her to Waco department store which is a 10 minute walk from our apartment.

A little while later we headed out and began walking to the store.  As we walked down the street the sounds and smells were an experience.  Chinese people sitting and standing in the square-shaped openings of their stalls/shops stared in shock/surprise/wonder as three foreigners walked past.  The stares were not hostile like they are sometimes/too often with some/too many (in my opinion) Koreans and many of the Chinese people would smile and look happy to see us in their part of China.  It was a refreshing feeling to be stared at without any of the animosity/xenophobia that Julianne and I too often would experience in Korea when being stared at.

While walking we came across some kind of stall that had an animal cage in front of it next to the sidewalk.  A very dirty, sick, and unhappy looking dog was lying inside it with a puddle of urine in the corner of the cage.  Later, on the way back from the department store the dog was gone–hopefully to a happier life with someone who bought him . . . though I suspect that that is rather idealistic.

We passed fruit shops, gambling rooms with wooden tables and chairs, and several other places that I had no idea what they were although they had WWII-era machines and other odds and ends.  The one defining characteristic that it all had an early, and I mean EARLY, modernization period feel to it with a good dose of dirt and pollution covering all of it.

Arriving at the intersection with the busiest traffic we’d seen so far we waited for our guide to signal we should cross because it seemed like NOBODY was waiting for a red light or a green light or the second coming of Jesus for a clear sign of when to cross the six lanes of traffic.  Cars, scooters, buses, and people all walked and drove in whatever direction they wanted to with maybe half of the vehicles following the traffic lights and the rest doing their own thing–wow.

We got across the chaotic six lanes of traffic and then walked into the department store.

Inside it had the feel of a traditional market that had been transplanted into a warehouse that was trying to pass itself off as a department store.   One major thing I noticed while entering the store was that the entrance way had the long vertical thick strips of plastic curtain thing going across it instead of a door to keep out as much of the heat and humidity as possible.  I thought to myself that Korea really needed to do something like this instead of the open door with the air conditioning blowing out onto the sidewalk/street folly that seems to be so widespread across the country and all of its incredibly more ‘modernized’ shops and stores.

We headed up an escalator and then walked into a huge open warehouse-esque sort of like Walmart concept department store.  It was pretty warm and too humid, and the hopes I’d had for it to be air conditioned were quickly destroyed.

Customers and floor sales people all stared as we walked around with enormous curiosity, eyes big and round and wondering.  There were no explosive bug-eyed stares followed by outbursts of machine-gun-fast comments and then rude laughter while pointing in the manner that most if not all foreigners experience in Korea.  If the people staring at us said things to each other it was in a soft barely audible voice, and a degree of decorum was maintained. Even the younger school-age kids didn’t go berserk the way Korean students will with wild hysterics, gesticulations, and howling comments about foreigners being in their country.


A little while later I noticed something: NOBODY WAS BOWING!

The sales and service floor staff weren’t bowing to customers.  Junior social rank Chinese people weren’t bowing to senior rank social people.  I began to ponder this huge cultural difference (compared to Korea) as we walked around . . .

My earlier comparison of a traditional market being transplanted into a semi-modern warehouse-department store continued to be reinforced.  Tables with piles of spices, herbs, nuts, seeds, etc, were in one area with no modern enclosures of plastic or glass containers.  In another area, smoked meats and fish hung from hooks (also seen at Walmart!), and the smells permeated the air (though not as powerfully as what we’d smell later on at Walmart).

After about five minutes of being shown all the different parts of the store our guide left to go to Walmart with another new foreign teacher who had been here for a few days.  Julianne and I grabbed a shopping cart and walked around checking out more closely what was available, and picking up food supplies for our apartment.

FRUIT!!!  Another big difference so far that I’ve noticed in China, in contrast with Korea, is that selection and prices of fruit is far superior.  I won’t list all the stuff I saw but suffice it to say I’ll be eating a LOT healthier here (you can eat well in Korea too, but you have to PAY MORE for a fair number of fruits) because the fruits I’d eat back in Canada are also available here, for the most part, and the prices are good.

We finished up our shopping and walked back to the apartment.   Going through the security gate we smiled at the guard, and hiked up the four floors back to our awesome apartment.

By this point we were pretty tired so we decided it was time for a nap.


Read Full Post »