Thursday, March 31, 2011

The language roller coaster

Back to school? No thanks!

Yesterday I had a bit of a bad day with everything going wrong… And when there are many bumps on the road you know what it’s like: You start creating yourself invisible bumps. At least is your name starts with a J and ends with ONNA.

So, yesterday I started thinking that on top of everything else that went downhill, my Chinese had gotten all bad, as I now don’t study the language on a regular basis anymore. I speak Chinese with my Chinese co-workers on a daily basis (my closest colleague is Chinese), and I have a lot of meetings and phone calls in Chinese. But from time to time I forget words/vocabulary that I used to know, and that frustrates me. Some days it pops back into my head, but I cannot get around the scary thought of: “think if I just get worse and worse and suddenly forget everything that I worked so hard to learn!” I know it’s a kind of ridiculous thought, but I think you know what I mean.

So, yesterday, in between bad thing 1 and bad thing 2, I decided to bite the bullet and asked my colleague what she thought of my language skills:

-I think everything, your writing, reading and speaking skills, are better today compared to when we first met (about 1 year ago), she said, which made me do 10 joyful jumping jacks at the spot (I sincerely hope she wasn’t just being nice).

I walked off feeling happy, until I received a phone call in Chinese. I was chatting on for a while until the guy I was talking to suddenly changed the topic into something I couldn’t understand. I made a guess, and it was wrong… and as a result… he switched to English.

I felt mortified. Even though the topic was a bit out of my league (environmental science) I couldn’t get over the fact that I couldn’t keep up the conversation in Chinese and that he felt he had to change to English.

…and this is how I go on these days. I’m on a high for a while, just to drop into a low as soon as I hit an unfamiliar language spot. I have tried to find time to study (I took lessons for a while last fall, but had to stop during the end of the Expo as I simply couldn’t find the time), and since then I haven’t really managed to fit it into my schedule. I prioritize health over pretty much everything else, because I know that I don’t feel good if I don’t do my workouts. But now I’m going to start with weekend language lessons instead of weekday lessons, as maybe it will become easier to keep the focus when you haven’t just spent 8 hours in front on the computer in the office.

I’ve been considering getting a language partner, but then I speak so much Chinese during the days that it almost feels unnecessary. Or… maybe not? Maybe I am stuck in the same, daily vocab with my workmates, and a language partner could challenge me in a different way? Then I think that my spoken Chinese is probably much better than my writing/reading skills, so I should probably practice that… which is something I cannot do via a language partner, but something I can do by simply picking up a newspaper on a more regular basis/keeping a diary in Chinese. Sounds easy, right? And trust me, I’ve tried. But for some reasons it’s very hard to motivate myself when there is no teacher pushing me.

It’s funny, with languages, because some days (or not days, it’s more like some weeks, as it goes in phases) I feel that I’m on top of everything: that I get on really well in terms of communicating with Chinese people, and that I have no big problems neither in my professional nor my private life over here. Then suddenly comes that low when my tones goes wrong (and I can hear it as I speak), I cannot find the words, and I find myself staring at the same character, wondering why I suddenly don’t remember it, because some days ago I recognized it.

I wonder if I will ever come to a point where I feel confident and comfortable with Chinese on an every day basis and not worry so much. Probably not.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Not living in "la-la-land"

Only for work circumstances would I agree to wear a hard hat...

Where does all of my time go? It’s almost April and I haven’t even done half of all the “Jonna stuff” I promised to do for myself this spring. Sure, I’ve kicked off a more healthy life (and I’ve stuck to it –I mix long distance treadmill running with spinning, weight training and yoga- it normally becomes 4 sessions/week, sometimes 3, and sometimes 5), but what about the rest? I had some serious writing plans for this spring, oh, and not to mention the fact that I was gonna cook more (ehhh), blog on a more regular basis (ehhh), take more photos (ehhh?!) and try to do more fun/new things on the weekday nights. Hasn’t really happened yet, but maybe I can blame winter and get re-started again now with spring around the corner. It is really heating up. Lovely! I hope spring lasts for more than 2 weeks this time!

One thing I’ve thought about is how people back home look at my life over here. Sometimes it hits me that some people don’t seem to take it seriously. It’s like they don’t get that my every day, boring Mondays are spent here, in Shanghai –and that they can be just as grey and dull as they can be back home. Just to take an example: I get a lot of visitors for work, from Sweden. Every time they come here they want full programs, they want to have dinners, go for drinks and explore the city. When I, on the other hand go to visit someone in Stockholm, my program almost always ends around 6.30pm, when people go home from work. There might be a dinner scheduled for one night out of seven. The other six nights, I get the whole: “Oh, you’ll have to take care of yourself because I have to go home to my family!”

Sure, I don’t have a family over here so that makes it a bit different. No kiddies to go home to. But it’s not like living abroad means that you hit restaurants and bars every single night –it’s not that special when you constantly have the possibility. I also like to get home early a few nights a week in order to do all that cooking/writing/photography that I never get around to do anyway…

Also, it’s funny how these “work visitors” often want to add some time for exploring the city/sightseeing in the program. If I would ask for something like that on a business trip to Stockholm I think people would start laughing. Why should I explore? I travel “home” for work –nothing else (although Stockholm is as far from home as any place in the world for me, truth to be told I’ve spent very little time over there –since I’m from Malmö we always went to Copenhagen rather than Stockholm when we were young). When people come here, however, regardless if it’s for a work trip, there should always be time for “some fun.”

I’ve talked to a lot of friends (that are in similar situations as me –they work for a European company and have to deal with visiting delegations, as well as working against time difference). Another really frustrating things is how people from Europe always feel that they can call you anytime, regardless if it’s 9pm and you might be enjoying a night off.

-Oh, sorry! Well, over here it’s only 2pm… bla bla bla.

I wonder how happy they would be if I called them at 4am, going:

-Oh, sorry, well over here it’s already 10am, and I really need some answers…

Bit of a rant, excuse me, but point to be made: when living and working here –it ain’t no holiday. Also, it is for real, even though it doesn’t feel like that when friends back home are asking me: “when are you coming home to start your real life? Aren’t you going to buy a house, a car, get married and have some kids soon? You’re not that young anymore, Jonna.”

It’s like they are waiting for my “fantasy-and-not-so-real-life-far-away-over-there” to end and me to join the rat race back home. Only thing is… I’ve already joined the rat race over here. And even though I just made a deal of the fact that time flies and I don’t have much spare time on my hands, I think I’ll stick to what I have here. Regardless if people think I’m “on some kind of holiday.” Has anyone experienced similar things? How do you guys deal with people from your home country not taking your life abroad seriously, constantly telling you that you should go "home" (meanwhile you might not be sure where "home" is anymore)? Please, do share.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Moganshan -莫干山

This wknd we did something that was long due: got away from Shanghai and spent the wknd surrounded by beautiful nature and clean air! Yes, some friends and I went to Moganshan!

Moganshan is located some hours outside of Hangzhou, so first we took a train to Hangzhou and then we had ordered a car to pick us up from there, taking us straight to Moganshan. You can apparently take a couple of buses too, but it was Friday night, and after a long week in the office it felt nice to get there without too much hassle.

We stayed in a gorgeous cabin that had everything we needed (including an open fire and an ayi that cooked us delicious meals every day!) for a kick-a** wknd. We spent the day hiking, sitting in the sun, eating some good food, playing yatzi and card games, enjoying good wines and just relaxing. After a spring of visitors and Shanghai-sightseeing, this was just what we needed: a city break with a view. I could recommend it to anyone!

We stayed at the Naked retreat, which was pricy but worth every penny if you ask me (then again, I have never been to Moganshan before so I can’t really compare it to anything else). Regardless of where you stay, though, the nature and the air are the best parts and those come for free. Oh, and guess what, I also had a Sweden-flash-back as you could drink the tap water up there! Yes, you heard me. The tap water was so clean that you could drink it. Heeeeeeaven! Now if that’s not a luxury I don’t know what is (I’m a bit of a camel –I drink litres of water every day).

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

For what it's worth

My new gym’s really great. They give you towels for free for every workout (not like my old gym where you had to pay 15 rmb to “rent” one). You simply go to the “towel counter,” give them your membership card, and they will give you two towels (one for shower, and one for your workout –which is fantastic when you’re a cardio freak like me!) as well as a towel card, that you then have to give them back in order to get your membership card when you leave.

The other day at the gym after a long workout, my friend lost her towel card. We looked everywhere but couldn’t find it. So she went up to the counter with her used towel and explained, asking if she still could get her membership card back.

The girl behind the towel counter froze.

-You’ve… lost… you card!? But… like… how?

My friend and I exchanged glances.

-Eh… not sure how. Just lost it?! She said with an attempt of a smile.

It was clear that the towel counter girl took this situation quite seriously. She went to make some phone calls and then came back to us.

-You need to pay 10 rmb and then you can get your membership card. If you find the lost towel card you have to come back with it, before we close today, and I will give you your 10 rmb back!

-Eh… right…

-If you find it tomorrow we won’t give you your 10 rmb back.

-OK… no problems.

Later the same day my friend and I were at her couch, “rewarding” ourselves with ice cream after our big workout (that’s the whole point, right?!) when her phone rang:

-Hi, this is Cherry (?) from the gym, we have found your towel card!

-Oh, great.

-So, do you want to come and get your 10 rmb?

My friend and I exchanged glances. It was 8.30pm on a Sunday and we’d managed to heat up her living room to a quite comfortable “lounging around” temperature.

-Naaaah… I don’t think I will come today.

Long silence in the phone before the girl (Cherry?) said that she really had to come today in order to get her 10 rmb, and that the might be able to do an exception and give her the 10 rmb if she’d come the next day instead, but that she couldn’t promise anything.

It took my friend quite a while to explain that she didn’t care too much about coming back in order to pick up 10 rmb and that she thought it was OK if the gym kept those 10 rmb as a fee for her sloppiness. Cherry almost wouldn’t have it, but then finally agreed to hang up.

Afterwards my friend and I sat, mouths wide open, thinking of how pretty fantastic China is. In Sweden you have to pay an equivalent amount of 10-20 rmb in order to use a public bathroom and sometimes the machine eats your coins without giving you access to any loo. In China, people call you about a 10 rmb fee and really try their best to pay you back.

I know what I prefer. Even though we were too lazy to go back.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Paranoid place

Forgive my absence, but I simply could not bring myself to write light-hearted blog posts with everything that’s going on in the world.

Not much has happened. While I’ve been gone the world has shown living proof of being a paranoid place: While salt has sold out in China, iodine tablets have sold out in Sweden. Yeah, you heard me right. On the other side of the world. Far from Japan. People. Buy. Iodine tablets. To protect themselves from the radiation.

I don’t know if I should laugh or cry about it all.

The sold-out-salt in China is another story. There are mixed views on WHY Chinese people all of a sudden are stocking up on this must have, taste enhancing and iodine containing mineral:

* Some say it’s because people are scared that food supplies are going to run out, and then the most important thing to have in the kitchen (as a Chinese family) is apparently salt (funny, I always thought it would be oil!).

* Some say it’s because salt contains iodine (iodine tablets have, just like in Sweden, sold out in China) and people believe it will protect them from radiation. Just the other day I read that one would have to eat three kilos of salt before the iodine would have any kind of effect. Three kilos?! Now, if that won’t kill you I don’t know what will.

* Some say it’s because people are scared that the sea surrounding Japan will soon be filled with radiation, and therefore, newly produced salt will also contain radiation. So better stock up on the radiation free stuff before it’s all gone.

I find it kind of ironic that people are so scared of radiation, both here and back home. Swedes are some of the world’s biggest sun bakers. No one thinks about radiation then?

And then there are Chinese people, being so scared of radiation –meanwhile the general concern towards health issues like pollution, is kind of mixed. I recently read an article about young Chinese girls in Beijing buying their dream cars (cute little things in the colours of pink or red) and being asked by a reporter if they ever think it’s a problem that so many people drive cars in Beijing when the air is already so polluted:

-Naah… well… I need my car. So I don’t really care. Others can stop if they like.

When asked if they could ever buy a second hand car:

-Never. It has to be the newest, latest thing.

But of course. Radiation is scary. I’m scared too. Unfortunately I didn’t react quick enough to get my hands on any iodine tablets. As for salt, I have a habit of not adding it to my food –and ironically, the salt that we have at home is iodine free anyway, so no luck there. I suppose, that when radiation hits us, I will just have to lock myself up inside and tremble of fear. At least all the Swedes on the other side of the world, eating iodine tablets, are safe.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Scams to scare

Now the rumours have come to China too:

“BBC announcement: radiation to hit Shanghai. Local authorities are issuing a warning and telling people to stay inside if it rains of if it’s windy outside.”

Text messages like this spread like a bush fire yesterday, causing not only confusion, but also some honest fear. Because what if it’s true?

Some hours later, however, we established that it was a scam.

It was exactly the same when I lived in London in 2001. I landed in London on the very same time as the plane hit the World Trade Centre, namely on September 11. The world, including London, was in shock. As the city slowly returned to normal, people started telling each other of warnings that they had gotten from “anonymous, Taliban looking men.”

-I went to the hairdresser and the guy who did my hair was from Afghanistan and he told me that I seemed like a nice girl and that I should avoid Piccadilly Circus on October 11!!

Do you think we were scared?!

However, when the third person came with a similar, yet somehow different story, it wasn’t that scary anymore.

As for text message scares/rumours in China –I’m not too worried, although I have to admit that a part of me has some concern. Not so much for what’s going to happen, but because you never know if the real information will get out over here, or if it will be censored, in an attempt to keep a “calm, harmonious society.”

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Reluctant to take the blame? Blame others!

On Saturday we went out for dinner with our visiting friends. However, once me and my bf got to the restaurant we realized that our visiting friends had ended up falling asleep instead of getting ready, and although they’d realized their mistake and woken up again –they were running a bit late. No biggy. My bf and I decided to have a drink and enjoy some alone time, seeing that we haven’t had any for the last month or so (like I said –visitor inflation!). Soon, however, we realized that we had been seated next to the smoking corner of the restaurant (that was smoke-free except for that very corner). Since none of us are smokers we asked the waiter if he by any chance had another table available, further away from the smoking corner? He did, and so we moved to the second floor of the restaurant.

-So is this floor smoke free too? I asked the waiter, who replied with an “of course” and a smile.

“Great!” I thought to myself and was just about to have a sip of my drink when I realized that the Chinese man at the table next to ours was lighting up a cigarette.

-Eh… I thought you said this floor was non-smoking? I said to the waiter (not as an accusation, more like.. a bit confused).

-Oh.. yes, it is! Sorry.

And then he went up to the guy that was smoking, pointed at me, and obviously told the man to stop smoking.

By once I felt a bit silly. It was not as if I would have died if this man would have smoked. I was more questioning the waiter, but I didn’t want to make a big deal.

Too late.

Turns out that before we had arrived to the second floor, there had been a large group of Chinese people chain smoking at the table next to the now smoking man, and the smoking man was furious when the waiter told him that this floor was now all of a sudden “smoke free” (which it obviously was not! But that’s what they had told me!). He wasn’t actually angry at me (phew!) but at the waiter, and started screaming and making a big scene. At the same time, the large group of Chinese chain smokers left, giving me looks that could kill. I felt like such an idiot, like such an annoying, idiotic laowai, who obviously had not read into the situation before I opened my mouth.

By the time our friends arrived everything had calmed down, and no one else smoked throughout that dinner, but I definitely learned a lesson: never believe problems here are solved easily, because when it comes to taking the blame of something, people can be quite reluctant (like the waiter who had told me the floor was non-smoking: he told the smoking man that I was the problem, and he told me that it was the smoking man who was doing something wrong). I don’t really like people smoking in restaurant, but then again, I don’t dislike it so much that I would start a fight over it. Next time I’ll definitely keep my mouth shut.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Babies and natural disasters

Baby Sam (who's not that small anymore) has gotten a baby sister.

It feels a bit strange to try and write a ”regular” blog post with everything that’s going on in Japan. The tsunami aftermath is simply horrific, I almost cannot read the news updates and look at the pictures. Makes it hard to go on and think about other “normal” stuff, even though it’s impossible not to.

One stream of light in this darkness is that my sister gave birth to her second child just the other night. A baby girl, quite big (4300 grams) as she was 12 days “delayed.” This gorgeous little baby girl (who is yet to be given a name) is my second niece (+ one nephew) that has been born while I’ve been in China. At times like this I get insanely homesick. And when I get like that, I go on shameless baby shopping sprees, making sure I get this baby everything that she could possibly need from her aunt in China (yeah, Sam and Malou –my other nephew/niece are the best dressed babies in Malmö. One Christmas when I was going home I literally filled the whole suitcase with baby clothes). Not much else I can do from here.

Other than that it’s been a good wknd, that unfortunately went by a bit too fast. It’s a lot warmer in Shanghai compared to what it was like last year at this time (it was around 18 degrees this wknd and we sat outside and enjoyed lunch). It’s wonderful at the moment but I’m not looking forward to when the thermometer shows 35 degrees again. Then again, nothing I can do about that, so better just to go with it than to complain and worry about it. There are more important things to worry about. My heart goes out to everyone in Japan.

Friday, March 11, 2011

One of the best things I've done

People back in Europe or the US (that haven’t been to China) often have the wrong kind of image of Chinese people. Many people seem to think that all that Chinese people ever do –is to cheat foreigners. I often get questions from friends or people that are coming here for a visit, wondering how alert they should be for “scams” and such. And sure, there are some infamous scams (like “art students from Beijing/Xi’an/Suzhou who try to sell you their crappy paintings after befriending you on the street” –but you easy learn how to spot those ones), and every now and then a taxi driver will make one extra turn in order to earn some extra kuais (I have to say though, that I don’t think taxi drivers are bad guys. They are often helpful and friendly and keen to get you where you want as fast as possible. For their own sake as much as yours), but generally speaking, I don’t think people here cheat you that much.

Yesterday was a day when I realized how awesome Chinese people really are. I first had a great day at work, chatting to my Chinese colleagues that I like a lot, and then went for a haircut –I have been going to the same Chinese girl since I came here, so for soon 5 years. About 1 year ago she discovered that I can speak Mandarin, and since then it’s been a pleasure to go for a trim. I don’t even have to tell her what I want her to do with my hair –she already knows. And she does those small little extra things for you that a hairdresser back home would never do. Also, she works together with her sister and brother (biological) and they are all just lovely, friendly and helpful –without being too much. When I left them last night they were all standing together, waving me off with big smiles on their faces.

On my way back I passed a fruit stand and decided to get some bananas. It was an old, Chinese man selling the fruit, and he watched me with an amused expression on his face. Every time I touched a fruit, he ran up to me, touching the same fruit, and telling me its name in Chinese. “I know, I know!” I finally said in Chinese with a smile, and that resulted in his amused expression turning into a delighted one.

I ended up buying heaps of stuff, strawberries, bananas, kiwis… and I didn’t even ask for the price. Only when he was filling up a bag with strawberries did I ask how much they were.

-Don’t worry, I won’t charge you much.

And he didn’t. In the end he asked for 9 kuai (!). When I gave him 10 and said it was OK like that, he came running after me with 1 kuai, smiling, and telling me to come back soon again.

I walked home feeling as if I was walking on clouds –not for any specific reason: not because I bought cheap fruit or had a good haircut or because I really like my co-workers: But because I’m so happy I live here and can communicate with all of these people, and share stories with them. Yesterday my hairdresser ended up telling me about what it was like growing up in a poor village in Anhui –and it’s just so interesting and fascinating to listen to stories like that. You would think it would be a sob story –but it’s not. More often it’s a down-to-earth story of how someone who’s had very little, still has managed to make the most of it. And that’s pretty fascinating and inspiring if you ask me.

Although I’ve had my ups and downs with China (and not to mention with learning Chinese) I have to say that coming here, and especially learning this language, is one of the best things I’ve ever done.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Freestylers in class

I’ve joined a new gym, where they have Les Mills classes such as spinning, fat burn, bodypump and you name it. It’s awesome. After having spent the last year or so on a treadmill in order to get my weekly fitness dose, it’s nice to be able to go to classes, be inspired by the instructor, do as s/he says and not having to think so much on your own (might come across as a bit strange, but when it comes to training it’s actually ideal).

I used to do a lot of spinning when I lived in Australia and Finland, but since my move to China it has only happened on rare occasions such as at fat burning parties in Suzhou. So, during the last week’s classes I’ve sort of struggled to keep up.

But, no worries about that. I realized, from looking around in class. Me struggling was actually considered a minor problem for the instructor. Most people didn’t listen to a word he said.

Spinning over here is like freestyling: go into class, get on a bike, and do whatever you like. Stand up if you feel like it, and when the instructor tells you to sit down, you might as well continue standing if you want to. It really is like that: people here do whatever they like to do, and yesterday I was watching the instructor running out to some of the participants, encouraging them to listen to his directions rather than just doing their own thing –in vain. There is no real class discipline –people just do what they feel like.

It’s quite similar in yoga class, even though it’s way better there. People tend to try and follow the teacher’s instructions. But then you have the freestylers, who take their training into their own hands (which I think is good in most cases, but maybe not when you take part in a class?). Accidently stand behind a freestyler in yoga class and you can kiss seeing yourself in the mirror/keeping your focus and balance away, as the freestyler is all over the place, bending in another direction when the rest of the class is going left, doing little jumps on the spot when everyone else are busy balancing on one leg, swinging the other one behind in the air.

Normally the teachers don’t care about it, but once one American yoga teacher saw what was going on, went up to a middle-aged woman who was clearly not listening to his instructions and asked her what the h*** she was up to. “You are putting everyone off with this kind of behavior!” he said, and then she actually stopped, at least during that class.

Anyway, point to be made, it cannot be easy being a gym instructor here in China. Yesterday I caught myself wondering why a lot of people here are not interested in following instructions/do their own thing, and I came to the solutions that maybe they just don’t take it that seriously. Maybe they just wanna go for a work-out, and do their own thing.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Xi'an? Jiuzhaigou? Xiamen?

Mom in Dali, Yunnan in 2009

I’m in need of everyone’s expertise yet again. My mom and dad are coming to China (again! It’s mom’s fourth and dad’s second trip) and I’d love to take them somewhere new and nice. None of us has been to Xi’an and it is kind of embarrassing to live in China and to not have seen the Terracotta army. Then again, I’m slightly against travelling to big tourist destinations and sharing attractions with huge crowds… Who’s been to Xi’an? Who thinks it’s worth a visit? Who doesn’t?

Another place I would love to visit is Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan. It looks stunning on the photos I’ve seen. And it’s in Sichuan, a province I’ve yet to visit, if nothing else, just to eat some of that amazing food. But is it too far away for a 3 day trip? Could we go somewhere else in Sichuan?

Then there’s also Xiamen…. But maybe there’s not that much to see…

What do you guys recommend?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Microwaved banana, anyone?

The other day at work a Chinese colleague of mine headed into the kitchen, put something in the microwave and went back to her desk. As my stomach was rumbling of hunger I decided to check out her snack, and maybe see if I could have a bite too. That was, until I looked into the microwave and saw a… banana!

I was so stunned that I went over to her desk:

-Hey Lil, are you heating a banana in the microwave?!

(Sure, I’ve heard of oven baked bananas but not microwave baked ones!)


-Eh… why?

-Because I cannot eat cold stuff.

-Eh… was the banana frozen or something?

-No, but it had been in the fridge so it was cold.

-But, like.. is it healthy to heat a banana in the microwave? Won’t it get all soggy and stuff?
(To tell you the truth I know very little about how bananas react to microwave heat. I don’t eat bananas as I don’t like the taste of it).

-I don’t know?! Will it?!

A look of horror spread over Lils face. And then sighed and said:

-Thing is, I don’t know what to do. My body temperature is so low. I’m cold all the time. So I have to heat things up.

-To raise your body temperature?!
I said.

-No… but if I eat things that are cold I get a diarrhoea.

-Oh…. right then. Well… Keep heating your bananas!

Later the same day I was in the kitchen, pealing an apple, when another colleague, Soph, sitting next to Lil (so she had overheard our banana conversation) came in to do the same thing as me. Once I had finished I left the kitchen, but on the way out I noticed the microwave door was open so I closed it, and when I did the microwave turned itself on, as the timer had not fully gone down.

-Whoops, I said, and turned the timer down to zero so that the microwave went off.

Soph watched me with a bemused expression on her face, and two minutes later she and Lil were in my room:

-So Jonna… you heat your apples in the microwave?!!!


-That’s so funny, do you also get a diarrhoea if you eat cold apples?!
Lil said.

-Ehum… sure. Right.

Sometimes it’s easier to play along than to try and explain.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Chinese Restaurant Syndrome

Can all this heavenly goodness be bad for you? Say it ain't so!

To follow-up on yesterday’s post about how healthy/bad Chinese food is, I’d like to post about something else that I’m probably one of the last people in China to even hear about, namely the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.”

I first heard this some weeks ago, when a colleague of mine came back from the hospital where she had been “diagnosed” with it, after experiencing numbness/burning in her arm (that came and went and then once stayed with her for a whole day), numbness/burning around her mouth after eating at a restaurant, high blood pressure and dizziness. She decided to head to the hospital mainly for the blood pressure, and that’s where the doctor asked her if she ate a lot of restaurant food.

Apparently, the food syndrome is believed to be caused by MSG (monosodium glutamate) that is so often added to food over here for flavour. It has not, however, been proved to be the substance that causes the condition. It’s just a belief.

According to the doctor, it wasn’t mainly Chinese food that was to blame for her condition, but all food cooked in restaurant –western food too.

-Chefs from all kinds of cuisines use MSG for flavour in China, said the doctor.

My colleague was told to stay away from the restaurant food and to follow a LCHF (low carb, high fat) diet to get rid of her problem. I felt very hesitant when I heard this. Sure, cooking your own food to make sure no unwanted, artificial flavour is added sounds like common sense, but following a strict diet and cutting out all carbs? Naaaaah…not really my cup of tea. And I really wonder what the doctors think when they tell their patients stuff like this: if you cut carbs out of your diet it must be a lifetime thing if you want to keep your weight down. Don’t believe that you can suddenly start eating carbs again once you are down to your ideal weight: you’ll get a lot of stomach problems + you’ll gain back all that lost weight. But, apparently it’s easier nowadays to tell people to cut things out of their diets and get a “quick fix” rather than having them making big, lifestyle adjustments (I am very traditional and I believe a lot of problems can be, if not cured, than at least helped with exercise –it does not have to be running or weight lifting, it can be pilates or yoga –something that is soothing, calming and relaxing for people with high blood pressure).

Anyway, what is your opinion of MSG and the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome? I have never experienced any problems myself. This colleague of mine is the first one I’ve heard of to be diagnosed with it.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

How healthy/bad is the Chinese diet?

Our visiting friends are real food junkies. Not only do they love and appreciate food –they live for food, and plan their days around their dinner. The idea of them coming to visit us here in Shanghai was born last summer, when me and my bf were over at their house, enjoying a delicious dinner (it’s a yearly tradition since 3 years back) and x bottles of wine. We were discussion the usual things (long distance running, training, food and China) and the more we talked about China, the more we started saying: “you guys must come! The two of you in food heaven –it’s meant to be!”

Six months later they told us they were game. And now here they are!

They must qualify as some of the best visitors to China ever. They are 100% positive and curious about everything. And they love the food over here, making it a pure joy to introduce them to some of our favorite restaurants (and, funnily enough, it makes US appreciate what we have over here even more!).

As we have been enjoying spicy beef, tofu, cabbage, dumplings and bowls of white, fluffy rice, however, our discussions have as usual moved into the usual, common grounds of interest: health and fitness. To our visiting friends, the Chinese food is delicious but oily and heavy. Me and my bf can agree on the fact that it is oily, but for some strange reason it doesn’t feel that heavy anymore. Despite the fact that I down at least 2 bowls of rice every day.

-How can you eat like this and still stay in shape!? Is the most common question asked (not only asked by our visiting friends, but pretty much asked by everyone that comes to China and have dinner with us). How can Chinese people eat like this and still be so small and skinny?

I try to explain it by mixing some knowledge with some assumptions:

* Chinese people have been eating like this since they were kids, they have grown up eating noodles, oily food and rice –their bodies are used to it.

* Chinese people don’t eat a lot of dairy (which I believe is a big reason to a lot of western people’s weight gain, just think about our creamy pasta sauces and how much cheese there is on a pizza), most of them don’t drink alcohol, they don’t eat much candy/chocolate, they drink a lot of hot water and tea, they don’t really have sandwiches for lunch.

* Typical snacks over here are things like nuts, sunflower seeds, dried meat, and fruit. Not muffins and chocolate bars (even though it is becoming more and more common).

*People here eat more veggies than meat.

But then it becomes trickier when people ask us why WE are not huge, seeing that we eat loads of oily, Chinese food. Shouldn’t we be getting fat from eating all of this food (according to western standards I mean. According to Chinese standards I’m already a fatty but back home I’m considered “normal” or even “skinny” at some places)?

And this is where I don’t really know what to answer. I believe that even though Chinese food is heavy on oil and that it (here in Shanghai) always comes with a bowl of rice (at least every time I order), it’s still healthier than the western diet of pasta and bread. Despite the fact that we always order at least four dishes and eat a LOT. Also, when it comes to Chinese food you can throw all kinds of Atkins, LCHF and south beach diets out the window. Here you eat everything (fat, protein and carbs) and unless you go overboard (and stay away from eating loads of deep fried and dairy every day) I believe you can do so, and still stay in a reasonably good shape. Or what do you think? Is Chinese food healthier than the typical, western diet? Or do you believe that it make you fat?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Putting out fire

The other day I was bumming around in our flat when I suddenly felt the smell of smoke. Since our corridor is not supposed to be any kind of nightclub, I got annoyed, and opened the door to see if I could see someone smoking. I didn’t. However, at the end of the corridor I saw an open door and I heard voices, so I guessed it came from there.

“Don’t get too upset now, it’s just smoke!” I tried to calm myself with saying. But after a while the smell was everywhere in our flat and I started to get really pissed off. People over here smoke everywhere: at restaurants, in bars (no smoke ban here, no), in elevators, in taxis… everywhere! If there is somewhere where I am NOT going to be a passive smoker, it has to be in my own apartment!

With that in mind I went over to the apartment with the open door. I kept very calm when I looked in and told a group of Chinese people that I they really should not be smoking inside, and if they insisted on doing so, at least they should close their door.

-Sure, sure, sorry, sorry! They all said, and then they started calling for a man that was walking around in the corridor outside, smoking. Turns out it was HE who had made our flat stink.

Around 10 minutes later I was leaving and went out to the elevator. Straight away I felt the smell of something that’s burning. I looked in the common bin that is located next to the elevators, and very well. In the bin, the smoking man (I assume) had butted out two cigarettes in a package of cookies, however, the cigarettes were not completely out, and therefore burning the paper.

“This is how fires are started,” I thought to myself. “I don’t wanna die in a fire?!”

With that in mind I went back to the flat where I’d just been, banged the door, and decided not to hold back. I am not so good at cursing and stuff in Chinese, I think the most offensive thing I can say is something like: “Are you crazy?!” so I said that over and over again, combined with phrases about the cigarette, about fire, about not being safe, and then I tried to refer to the big fire in Jing’an in Shanghai some months ago, but I am not sure if I made sense or not.

While the smoking man was sorry and hurried out to put the cigarette out, some other men in the flat just laughed at me:

-You know what, you should call the police! Yelled one.

It took me around 15 minutes to calm down after that comment.

I don’t get it. How can people be so ignorant about things like fire over here? Is there some common sort of thinking that goes: “nah, it will never happen to me!” that everyone holds on to? I mean, the lack of seatbelts in cars is one thing: back in the 70ies in Europe there was a similar attitude towards seatbelts. But fire? I’ve been brainwashed with fire-safety drills and fire safety measurements in school for as long as I can remember. Is there no kind of common fire sense over here? How can people laugh at people that are just trying to do the right thing?

I don’t think I will get any answers to those questions anytime soon, and anyway, we have decided to move out. This old complex has its charm but it also has things I cannot put up with (the burning cigarette in the bin is just the tip of an iceberg). We won’t make a move immediately, but when our lease is up this summer we will pack up and try and find something a bit more modern.