Sure, Chinglish can make us laugh, but it can also make us think. So on that note, here is a little something to consider.
Thanks for reading!
Sure, Chinglish can make us laugh, but it can also make us think. So on that note, here is a little something to consider.
Thanks for reading!
Please check out The Kunming Report’s new YouTube channel. I will be using this to share various videos I have shot throughout Kunming and other places in China.
If you are interested head over to http://www.youtube.com/user/TheKunmingReport/ and have a look.
Below are photos and links to the videos currently available on TKR’s YouTube channel. Are you interested in how cheese is grilled in Dali or how a breakfast favorite of locals – fried dough sticks – are made in Kunming? How about finding out what is it like to exercise in China…with your dog?
If so, click the link above or take a look at the pictures below. Each includes a direct link that will take you to the related video on the new TKR YouTube page.
Thanks and enjoy!
My premium subscription at WordPress, which allows me to use my current domain name and upload videos among other things, is set to expire on April 6, 2013. I paid $99 for the year, primarily with the intention using the video feature more actively. However within the year since the upgrade I think I uploaded about 5 videos, which at $20 a piece is probably not entirely worth it.
In short, I will not be renewing. Instead, after April 6th there will no longer be any videos on TKR and I will lose the right to use http://www.thekunmingreport.com as the blog’s address. After April 6th, if you go to http://www.thekunmingreport.com you won’t find anything.
Fear not, however, for you will still be able to find and read the blog at its original address here:
Thanks and please keep reading.
Thanks for reading.
In China, Lunar New Year is far and away the most important holiday of the year. Falling every year in January or February it is a time when stores close, factories shut down and literally hundreds of millions of people travel the country en route to their hometown. This year the New Year fell on February 9th and I was lucky enough to spend Spring Festival – as it is also known – with Wang Lin’s family at their home in a rural part of Guizhou province. It should be mentioned that this year’s New Year celebration couldn’t have been a more different experience than the one I spent last year visiting my friend Hu Kai’s affluent family. If you are interested you can read about that here (Post 1, Post 2, Post 3) . I will say that without much experience to draw on I think that spending New Year’s in a rural community feels more “real” or at least seems to be closer to the experience the majority of Chinese people are having or have historically had. That said, both were interesting experiences and I am grateful for both opportunities as the vast differences between them actually highlighted the uniqueness of the other.
The New Year is celebrated by gathering with family, eating, shooting fireworks, and watching the New’s Year Eve gala – a multi hour ordeal which reportedly is getting more boring by the year and which this year oddly enough featured a performance by Celine Dion. New Year’s Eve however, is really only the beginning of the celebration. People take as many days off as possible and that time is shared with family and friends ideally in one’s hometown. Visiting neighbors and friends to spread cheer and catch up is a big part of those subsequent days and in a small community like Wang Lin’s people literally just wander from house to house stopping in for a game of cards, mahjong, or just to chat. Those activities are always accompanied by a ample supply of snacks and depending upon the time of visit or the importance of the guest an entire meal might even be prepared. For example, when WL and I dropped in unannounced on her cousin and his family at about four o’clock one afternoon he literally cooked an entire meal and then explained that he was sorry he couldn’t stay and eat, but he and his wife had a previous engagement to go to. We happily enjoyed the meal with his parents and two sons. On a different occasion, I was surprised when at one point while clearing the dishes I was told that they needed to be cleaned right away so they could be used again. As soon as her mother finished washing that round of dishes she immediately began to prepare the next meal for some other guests who had arrived too late for the previous meal.
Given the importance of the holiday I was struck by the casual attitude people seemed to have towards plans and planning. Surely, those type of details could have been discussed without my knowledge, but based on my observations there was no evidence of them if they did exist. Admittedly, I come from a family that sends out hour-by-hour itineraries for things like Fourth of July so I might have a slightly unusual perspective on reality here, but in any case, it is difficult for me to explain just how open-ended things seemed to be. At all hours of the day from breakfast until late into the night people popped in. Everyone is encouraged to sit for a while regardless of how they were (or weren’t) connected to the group already gathered. Neighbor’s children and people well into old age inevitably ended up sitting around the same table for at least a cup of tea, a handful of sunflower seeds or a cigarette. I know that in my experience people tend to expect formal invitations and if you were somehow to stumble in on a gathering of say ten to fifteen family members (on a day like Christmas Eve) you wouldn’t expect to be invited to join in the meal or festivities. That mindset doesn’t exist here. One afternoon we took a trip to WL’s aunt’s home for a meal. Loads of people were there upon arrival (very few of whom I recognized) and as we ate neighbors, friends, enemies (who knows?) streamed in and we always managed to make room for them at the exceptionally small table. On a different occasion a group of about eight people made up of Wang Lin’s family and a couple sets of neighbors were sitting around when her mother took off to the kitchen to prepare a bowl of noodles for each guest. Shortly thereafter everyone was handed a steaming bowl of deliciousness.
In addition the nonstop visits, her family operates a very small convenience store in the front room of their home. The store is connected to the living room and people who stop by for something as simple as a pack of cigarettes are asked (perhaps I should say coerced – at one point her brother was literally pulling someone by the arm into the living room) to sit. The way things are said in raised voices and heavy dialect somehow makes it seems more dramatic that is actually is. That said, some people sit for a minute, some for hours on end.
Food and sharing meals couldn’t be any more important in Chinese culture. In fact the most common greeting around meal times is “Have you eaten?” That said, historically (even in WL’s lifetime) eating meat was a luxury reserved for celebrations. While abstaining from meat throughout the remainder of the year is no longer an economic necessity for her family I found out first hand that eating meat (and lots of it) as a means of celebration is a tradition that is still very much alive. Freshly prepared pigs, rabbits, chickens, and fish (which is eaten everywhere in China around New Year as it symbolizes good luck) were served in generous portions at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Most everything eaten at her home is grown on their land. The pig we ate this year is actually the one I met last year. The chickens, rabbits and fish are all either raised at their home or caught nearby and are prepared by her father or brother. Freshness is evident in everything from the fresh picked herbs to the fish that was literally swimming around moments prior being dropped into the biggest wok I have ever seen. Certain parts of the animal – chicken feet, pig intestines, slabs of pig fat, etc – are a no go for me, but almost without exception everything I ate was wonderful. Even the rice that they grow is unbelievable. It is flavorful in and of itself and I would regularly eat three of four bowls with each meal. People from Guizhou love spicy food and naturally her parents grow and prepare their own spices which give every dish a wonderfully strong flavor. Each meal consists of several dishes each unique in both flavor and in the ingredients used. Some are served cold while many are still steaming when the reach the table.
Anyway enough talk. Below are some photos and a few videos. Enjoy!
Everywhere we went we were offered sunflower seeds, peanuts, candy, and fruit. I quite like sunflower seeds and peanuts so that worked out for me. What I found troubling was that no matter how much had I just finished eating at a meal as soon as the snacks came back out I was almost instinctively driven to dig back in.
As though it was mandated by law, everyone’s home had a small rectangular living room and inside of everyone’s living room there was one of these coal burning tables. They serve two purposes. The first being a source of heat. Chunks of coal are dropped into the center of the table and as they get hot it warms the room (or at least the area very near the table). Secondly, the center of the table where the coal is inserted is covered by a removed plate which serves as a burner of sorts where water can be boiled or come meal time the main dish, usually fish or tofu, can be cooked while you eat.
A Shared Experience
The idea of serving everyone their own plate of food at a communal meal simply does not exist in China. Instead, every meal was served in the following way. Everyone is given a small bowl of rice, and the shared dishes are placed around the outside of the aforementioned table. As I just mentioned the main dish sits in the middle on the hot plate. No one is given any particular dish and instead everyone shares everything. This is a learned process especially when you feel like your chopstick skills might not serve you well as you reach for a slippery piece of tofu sitting opposite you on the table.
Here is a closer look at some of the dishes we ate during our stay. I haven’t included any captions because quite frankly I don’t know what anything is. All I can say is it tastes great.
As always thanks for reading and Happy Chinese New Year!
The day I saw this place I was convinced I wanted to live here. Despite looking decidedly like tenement (barred windows and all) from the outside, after climbing the five concrete sets of stairs and opening the door into my unit you find yourself in a surprisingly nice two bedroom apartment. At the same price – 1500 元 or $250 a month – as my previous much smaller studio apartment, I was sold. Having moved twice already in the year and a half since I arrived I know how limited the supply of reasonably priced and still livable (I know I’m playing fast and loose with that term) apartments really is. This place was the perfect balance. By giving up the modern amenities associated with new construction you can get more size for your money and ascending five flights of stairs is more than a fair tradeoff for a place that is easily twice the size as my previous apartment. Plus it is quieter here. Away from the busy street and the rowdy people who frequented the karaoke club located directly across the street from my previous place. I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights I had thanks to poor renditions of Adele and not-so-infrequent street fights that would erupt after the drunk and evidently quite rowdy patrons would spill into the night. Not to mention, I can now walk to work in about ten minutes. That said, it hasn’t all been so great.
The day after I moved in I began the sixteen hour cleaning process that this place required. The house hadn’t been occupied for quite some time so there was a lot to do. Rearranging, scrubbing, sweeping, mopping, disposing of trash, removal of strange things the landlord left behind, etc. I went out the first day and bought some cleaning supplies; gloves, scrub brushes, chemicals, the works. Things went well until around the fourteenth hour when I was working on the bathroom, which as the least desirable place to be I had been putting off until the end. I had scrubbed the walls, bathtub, and even bits of the ceiling where a good deal of mold and other filth had accumulated. Moving on, I was working on the area around the toilet, when all of a sudden I bumped the water supply hose for the toilet with my scrub brush. Well, what do you know, it snapped clean off from the wall. Let me be clear, it didn’t come unscrewed, or unhinged, or any other understandable and easily remedied situation. No, the connection point where a metal pipe meets another metal pipe broke as the result of a mere nudge. As the photo below shows, water began gushing out. Attempts to reconnect the hose resulted in direct streams of water to my face. I decided I needed help. I called my manager, John (his English name), who at this point was already fairly fed up with me because of an ongoing problem related to my water heater – more on that later. He answered and I told him that water was pouring out of the wall in my bathroom. He told me he was on his way, but I needed to go ask the people downstairs to turn off the water valve. Dutifully I went down and found the guards/bike parking attendants/who the hells knows what they do people who told me it was out of their hands and that I needed to go back inside and find the water valve myself. Having turned every visible valve up and down, left and right I gave up and waited for John to arrive – his luck was not better than mine. The water continue to gush out. I felt like the situation was rather urgent. I mean at this point water had been streaming out uninhibited into my bathroom for about 25 minutes. Fortunately, there is a drain in the floor, but still. Together, we went back down and got the same unenthusiastic response from the aforementioned people. They directed us to go to an office located inside the complex where someone more qualified would be. We hurried to that office and John began imploring the first and only person we came across to help explain how we could shut the water off. After listening for a moment he said “I don’t work here.” At this point, right or wrong, I was furious. No one seemed to care that water was literally pouring out into my bathroom. Furthermore, the fact that I had literally just spent the last two days cleaning my apartment with the hopes of spending the evening relaxing was adding to the tension. In a surprising and equally frustrating decision, John told me to get on his scooter – we are going to the real estate agents’ office to get them to help. Aghast at what this had come to (we were driving to a remote location to try and find someone who could help us address the water flooding my bathroom) I climbed on the back and we drove off without paying the parking attendants a point they would make when we returned. We arrived at the real estate office to find, wouldn’t you know it, no one was there. At that point, he started to make some phone calls. Someone would be able to come to my apartment after 6. The water had already been running for well over 30 minutes and it was…4 o’clock. Apparently, everyone but me was okay with this going on for two, three hours. John drove me back to my apartment and in an ill-advised attempt to slow the leaking we tried jamming some chopsticks wrapped in toilet paper and tape into the hole, but that (not surprisingly) resulted in more direct blasts of water to the face. The handy-man who I recognized from the day I moved in arrived around 6:15 to fix the problem. He, too, upon further investigation was rather surprised by the nature of situation. Not your ordinary break apparently. After a quick assessment he left saying he couldn’t fix it either and was going to call someone else. We were, at that point, approaching three hours of continuous water flow. Evidently, unable to find anyone to help he, himself, returned to my apartment a while later carrying a few tools and much to my surprise was able to get it fixed in about fifteen minutes. That, unfortunately, was only the beginning of my problems.
With that situation settled I was able to begin the process of solving what I am going to call “the water heater debacle.” Prior to signing the lease, John and I arranged a second look at the apartment. At that time we specifically asked the agent whether or not the gas-powered water heater, among other things, worked.
She answered, more or less, “Yeah, it must.” Good enough. Or so I thought. It was the coldest time of the year in Kunming at that point and I was not interested in living somewhere without a readily available hot shower. That said, I was very disappointed when a week or so later when I moved in, an interesting process in and of itself, and was told by a different person (actually the guy who subsequently fixed the toilet problem) that “No, it doesn’t work.” Hmm. Not to worry though, he assured me, because there was solar heated water available throughout the building. Flipping on the kitchen faucet made it abundantly clear that there wasn’t even any warm water flowing through the pipes. That, he explained, was due to the fact that on that particular day the water tank located on the roof of the building had been cleaned. Therefore, there wouldn’t be any hot water for a day or so. I was miffed, because we had been deceived and perhaps more frustrating it was outside the bounds of my Chinese ability to really get into this with anyone. Therefore, I was left to plead – in vain – to John. John, who handles problems the school’s foreign teachers have was trying to help, but was also more or less resigned to the fact that there was nothing to be done. While I waited a few days as the situation worked its way through the convoluted loop of people involved in this process it became clear that there was a limited supply of warm water available during the sunniest parts of the day and only near freezing water available at night. During that time, I literally had to boil water on the stove, pour it into a plastic tub, carry that into shower, add cold water from the shower head and then use another smaller plastic dish to pour water onto myself. Less than ideal considering that it is winter and with no central heating or insulation it is cold. That went on for three nights. Finally, we arrived at the following. The man who I now understand to be the property manager told us that:
1. The water heater hadn’t worked for years and it wasn’t going to be or couldn’t be repaired.
2. That he didn’t tell us it worked during our tour rather that was someone else so he has no idea what they were talking about.
3. That this is Kunming and solar heated water is a great option here.
To points one and two: “Thanks.” To the third point my feeling was “Great, but sadly your personal enthusiasm for solar heating technology cannot in and of itself heat my water so I’m less keen on having you tell me it works and more interested in having it work.”
By then, I had boiled water for my shower three-too-many times and was now convinced buying a water heater was necessary. John assured me that my school was not going to buy one and the management company’s view was also rather clear so I went with Wang Lin’s help to buy one. (In a strange twist of events I won’t go into the landlord herself actually happily later repaid me.) Anyway, I bought what seemed like a great option. An on-demand heater that supposedly could use what solar heated water there was and then add any additional heat needed for showering. At 1500 元 after installation it wasn’t cheap, but I wasn’t about to live somewhere with no hot water. Purchasing it was rather quick and straightforward, getting it installed on the other hand was quite an experience. The proprietor from the store I purchased it at showed up at my house about an hour later. He had his tools and the new heater. He removed the old gas-power heater and began installing the sleek new one which according to the package had “German Conception.” (Promising?) He also couldn’t figure out how to turn the cold water off (think toilet incident all over again) and so installing this thing meant that literally the kitchen – where it was installed – was going to be flooded with water. He didn’t seem to mind that he and his tools – even electric ones – were sitting in the standing water. I, on the other hand, made some futile efforts to maintain some sense of dryness by running the mop between the debris, packing material, and tools strewn throughout my freshly cleaned kitchen. He seemed fairly unfazed by it all and although we tried a series of half-assed methods like turning on the water in the sink or shower to divert some of the pressure there was literally water everywhere. Once the kitchen was sufficiently soaked it began to make its way down the hall towards the bedrooms. I can still see the guy standing there, his black tennis shoes trailing water and dirt everywhere he stepped. Due the poorly maintained plumbing in my apartment I ended up having to buy 200 元 worth of additional parts to replace clogged valves and the like, but after about an hour it was installed. Then came time to install the complimentary shower head. My apartment has a bath tub, which is located on a slight raised platform in the bathroom. Taking one look at the plastic tub and its shoddy workmanship he essentially said “Hell no, I am not going to stand in that thing.” “Why not?” You might be wondering as I was. He didn’t dare stand in the shower, because he feared he would fall through! I had at that point never even considered the possibility of falling through my tub, but I just added that to a long list of “fun” little discoveries I have made about this place.
Instead of stepping in, he opted to straddle the tub and installed the shower head in that way. The water was, finally hot. He instructed me not to set the temperature on the machine higher than 45 and left. His departure left me another solid hour of cleaning, mopping and garbage removal. I can’t fathom a company in the US coming into your kitchen, drilling, taping, rewiring and so forth while installing something that cost as much as an entire month’s rent and then just leaving. I mean, he left packaging floating around, as well as the previous water heater, the box, mud, and even some of his own materials. Anyway, I didn’t really care, because finally I had hot water and it seemed like my new apartment was really ready to be lived in. Accept for one thing…it wasn’t.
That night I flipped on the machine fired up the shower and…boom the apartment went dark. I went out into the hall to switch the one fuse that was allotted for both my apartment and my neighbor’s. I went back in tried again. Again, darkness. One more attempt and I gave up. I was furious. I had spent so much money, so much time, and I was still without hot water. It was already about 11:30 so there was nothing to be done that night. The next day, Wang Lin helped me contact the water heater guy who had a rather remarkable solution he was sure would work. Remember, this is the proprietor of an electronics store, not a licensed electrician, not an employee at the complex where I live, nothing official. Rational behavior to the wind, he shows up, opens the fuse box I share with my neighbors and just installs another switch for my place. Again, I can’t get over the fact that for two entire apartments – four bedrooms, two kitchens, two bathrooms and so on – there was one fuse switch.
He didn’t get permission from anyone to do this, he didn’t notify the management company, nothing. Just showed up, rewired the box, took his 20 元, assured me this would solve the problem and left. And solve the problem it did…for a while. At 5000 watts, the thing was a beast. I mean the lights in my apartment (and perhaps my neighbors) would dim when it kicked in, but it worked. The water went from cold to hot in seconds. Then it began to develop the unfortunate habit of unexpectedly stopping mid-shower. I, more than once, had to climb out of the shower soaking wet and covered in soap and venture into the freezing air to see what the hell was wrong. Much like any electronic device the best solution I could come up with was turn to it off and back on again. Occasionally that worked, but the conclusion I came to was that, if it doesn’t always work than it really doesn’t work. That said, for about three weeks I make the best of it.
Then came the fire.
My dad and sister, Grace, came to visit me for Christmas and New Years (which was wonderful, perhaps more on that another day) and Grace stayed in my guest bedroom. On a cold night near the beginning of their stay she wanted to take a shower. In the interest of her comfort I turned the water heater up to 50 (the max was 55) and cranked up the space heater in her room. Well, after about a minute…darkness. At that point, I knew the drill, so I went out to my fuse box where I now had my very own switch. I flicked it into the “On” position only to be stunned, no terrified when at that very moment the metal box located just above the switch (see above) became engulfed in a flame. Not a spark. A flame. It lasted only a second and the switch jumped diligently back to “Off,” but that was far too long for me. I was dumbfounded. I stood there in the freezing cold hallway, the smell of smoke in the air, and thought “Oh shit, now what?” I just saw a fire in my fuse box. Despite the fact that there was no longer a visible flame, I have heard/perhaps invented enough stories about tragic fires that I could not in good conscience go to sleep without taking some further action. I mean I live in an apartment building with no elevator, no fire escape, not smoke detectors and a good deal of elderly people who I fear wouldn’t be ready at about midnight to race down the steps should this situation get any worse. I went back inside and told Grace, who was standing in a towel looking rather perplexed, that there was not going to be any power for the remainder of the night. She went to sleep, I called Wang Lin. WL tired to assure me not to worry. I tired sleeping, but all I could do was run through horror-type situations in my mind. I decided to go down and discuss the issue with the bike parking people/night guards. Describing this situation with any precision was (and still is for that matter) well outside the range of my Chinese ability, but I was able to explain it using sound effects and the basic words like fire, electricity, and dangerous. After some persuading, one of them begrudgingly came up with a flashlight and took a look. He said it seemed okay and that was that. He left and I called John explained the situation and asked him to please come first thing the next morning to help. Luck would have it that the next day was the beginning of the three-day holiday break for all employees at the company that supplies my power. John explained there was nothing to be done. Sit in the cold and be dark I guess. A short period of heighten stress followed, but that was alleviated when much to my surprise someone from my building was able to replace it for me.
After that, things got worse on the water heater front. Not only was I now paranoid about using it, but when I had the courage to do so switching on and off mid-shower or simply not working at all became increasingly common occurrences. The guy who sold it to me explained to WL that this problem was out of his hands and so someone from the manufacturer would have to come and repair it. The customer service people at the company were of no help. The best they could do, despite the fact that this machine was just over a month old and had yet to provide even a solid week’s worth of functionality, was send someone in about three days. Even in the face of WL’s best efforts over the phone they were unbending. So, in a rage, we went back to the store where we bought it and asked to exchange it. He obliged our request and this time, I selected a much more basic model. I am resigned to the fact that the electrical works in my apartment building are not compatible with the today’s technology.
The second installation process went very much the same as the first. Water, packaging, trash and tools everywhere. Only this time, after removing the fuse box type device that came with the 5000 watt heater he left two live wires exposed. What followed was a somewhat surreal situation really. We were standing together in the kitchen – I was reprising my role as the guy who tries to keep the water and filth situation under control, he the role of the guy who doesn’t live here and therefore doesn’t care about any of that – when all of a sudden the spewing water, exposed wires, his hand and one of the metal water hoses all came it contact. It was both visibly and audibly obvious he had just been shocked – badly. He yelped and jumped back, the shock burned a hole into the water hose and that immediately began projecting even more water into the situation. Shocked – although not literally – I stood there for a moment as he disappeared into the other room. I grabbed a towel and tried to slow the rate of water shooting from the freshly punctured water hose all the while trying to figure out what – in Chinese – I was obliged to say. “天哪” or “Oh my God” was all I managed. A moment later, he returned to kitchen. He had shut off the power to the apartment and his hand was bleeding. He had literally just shocked himself to the point of bleeding. That said, he refused the band aid I offered and didn’t make me pay for the replacement hose as he explained it was his negligence that caused it to break – a point I didn’t dispute. He finished up, packed his things, charged me 75 元 for the shower head which was included with the previous heater, but not this one, told me that America was treating China badly in regards to their dispute with Japan over some mutually claimed islands and left.
All of that, another hour or so of clean up and I am now the proud resident of a fully functional apartment. Although I noticed this week that the refrigerator is leaking water. And when you watch TV the audio and video don’t align properly. And the internet stopped working the other day which required two trips from the service people. And when you open the valve for the solar heated water you can’t use the electronically heated water. And the device in the living room called Video CD player can’t play DVDs and the DVD player bought to replace it had to be exchanged, because it didn’t work either. And the water pressure fluctuates wildly. And you can only open the bathroom door if you turn the knob to the right. And in the process of writing this I tried to close the curtain on the window above my desk when the curtain rod was dislodged from the wall and rained plaster down onto my computer and related devices (see below). And…Oh well, that is all better than a cold shower.
Have a look around.
Take a walk down any street in Kunming (or any other place in China) and you are bound to come across something noteworthy. Be it frustrating – like the tremendously inconsiderate and unsafe driving habits of locals, interesting – like the groups of people who gather in public places for daily dancing, or delicious – like fried potatoes tossed in a wonderfully flavorful mixture of spices. The city has an endless supply of stimuli sure to catch your attention. Everyday brings with it an opportunity to feel, in some sense, China. To witness real Chinese people doing Chinese things.
Coming from America I rather naively thought I, unlike some others, was an open-minded person. Being in China, however has challenged that belief. Daily life here provides a tremendous number of experiences where my previously hidden and yet what I now know to be a deeply ingrained attitude that “we know best” is exposed. That has been an uncomfortable realization for me. I find myself, more often than I would like to admit, responding to certain aspects of daily life in China with a condescending “Why?!,” “Why don’t you do it like us?” Perhaps, the best answer to that question is the one I get from my students and coworkers when they are presented with a question they are not sure how to answer…”No why.” Our societies are different. We communicate differently, we eat differently, we run our businesses differently and so forth and that is good.
Although (some) Chinese people like using iPhones, carrying Coach handbags, and eating KFC they have not, in fact, been waiting for the arrival of American culture – be it corporate culture, social culture, food culture, or any other manifestation therein – which they can unequivocally embrace as a replacement for their own 5000 year old system. Thus, it shall (and should remain) that Chinese culture is distinct from American culture to the point where an American can, after over of year of living here, stand on the corner and say “Why?”
I had precisely that type of “Why?” experience a few months ago when WL and I were taking a walk alongside a small river near my old apartment. We had walked there many times before and seen various interesting occurrences – people standing in the waist deep water using long sticks of bamboo to clear out some kind of unwanted plant life, children gleefully playing with firecrackers, intimidating large dogs walking “leashless” with their owners, and so forth. That day, however, we came across something I hadn’t seen before. Shortly after starting along the riverside path, we came across a group of about ten adults, dressed as though they too were out for a walk and yet they wading around with pant legs rolled up in the swallow water evidently looking for something in the river. It wasn’t immediately clear what exactly they were looking for or why their were so many people involved. Intrigued WL and I stepped off the stone pathway and walked down the slight embankment to get a closer look. It turns out they were fishing – with their bare hands – for something that looked to me like small snakes. Much to my surprise and evidently their satisfaction there were loads of these creatures which turned out to be eels (鳝鱼) readily available in the mud and weeds of the shallow water.
The longer I watched the more bizarre the experience felt. WL asked them what they were doing. Their reply was equally curious. They were fishing for eels which they were later going to eat. “Have they eaten them before?” I asked WL. “No, most of them haven’t.” was the reply. So how did this incongruous group people ranging from about 18 to 50 years old end up here? How did they know to look here? Where did they learn this fishing tactic? According to WL, they too had seen other people fishing in this same way and decided to give it a try. That said, they were incredibly adept and I might add brave when it came to snatching the slippery creatures. I, for one, am very squeamish about touching animals. In college my roommates and I had a guinea pig named “Fiddy” (after the great rapper 50 Cent), which I literally couldn’t pick up or hold, because as soon as I had a tight enough grip to hold the little bastard I felt its rib cage and couldn’t bear the sensation.
The fishing process was simple. A few people roamed a small section of the river waiting for the eels to appear – they looked to me like black sticks floating vertically in the water – after which they would grab them with one hand and in the same motion throw them to the shore where several other people waited to either catch them or pick them up off the ground and put them into a white pail. As we stood there both WL and I felt compelled to get involved. She began helping by spotting as many eels as she could, while I took a more passive role of taking pictures with my cell phone. I remember one man, about 20 years old, seemed to relish the fact that a foreigner was there watching and photographing their efforts.
The entire process was at once so strange and yet so commonplace. It was midafternoon on a weekday and a group of people – whose connection outside of this situation was difficult to ascertain – were fishing for eels in a city with a populations in the millions. It was, a wonderful example of the way life in China can, at times, be so inexplicable.
Much to my surprise a few months later, when I went to visit WL’s hometown I found out her father and a cousin had spent several nights prior to our arrival fishing for these very same eels in the shallow waters of their rice fields and they were going to be a dish in our “welcome” dinner. Perhaps it was fitting. I had already seen them fished out of a river in Kunming and now I had the opportunity to see them prepared and more importantly find out what they taste like.
The Kunming Report’s Five Step Guide to Eating Eel in China.
Step 1: Catch them and put them into a bucket.
Step 2: As demonstrated by Wang Lin’s father and cousin take them out of the bucket.
Step 3: Nail them to a board so we can cut them easier.
Step 4: Cut them and when doing so, by all means, be prepared for a good deal of blood on your hands and clothing.
Step 5: Cook them and eat them.
Step 5 is actually incomplete, because I didn’t (and still don’t) know exactly how they were to be eaten and by the time the meal began I had been separated from WL and was seated in room with about fifteen people I had only just met. So using my chopsticks I hesitantly took a piece and placed it into my mouth. The flavor was not bad, but the texture, particularly the center was exceptionally – shall I say – “chewy.” Perhaps it was the spine or something I don’t know. Had WL been nearby I would have asked if I was supposed to eat it in its entirety or spit part of it out (which is actually a very acceptable thing to do at a Chinese meal, because many things – including fish – are served with bones), but she wasn’t around so I went with the more low profile option and chewed it until I could safely swallow. Admittedly, it wasn’t the greatest eating experience of my life, but all told it made for an interesting end to an experience that started a few months earlier and many many miles away in Kunming.
Do you like reading funny Chinglish signs, menus, advertisements, etc? If so check out the new Chinglish Sightings Collection here at TKR. The collection includes links to all of the previous Chinglish Sightings posts.
If you are interested in checking it out you can find the link to the page, labeled “The Chinglish Sightings Collection,” just below the photograph of Kunming on the home page.