Saturday, December 11, 2010

Preparations for Departure: Food and Language

McDonald's is right next door,
but why would you go there?
In Concord, NH, where I have lived for almost ten years, there is a wonderful little place on Loudon Road, called Sunshine Oriental Restaurant. Loudon Road is the ugly strip of endless fast-food restaurants and big-box monstrosities that have come to haunt the outskirts of many towns and cities in America. This little place fits right in with the depressing McDonaldization aesthetic, but is a gem when it comes to its dim sum and the friendly service. I had been here once before and it received a favorable review in our local rag.

Originally a Cantonese custom, dim sum is closely linked to the Chinese tradition of "yum cha" or drinking tea. I had a couple of cups of tea before my lunch guest arrived because it was -17 degrees Celsius today in Concord. We had taro and Chinese broccoli as well grilled bean curd sheet rolled with shrimp. They accommodated my gluten-free diet and brought us beef with rice noodles and some lotus leaves all wrapped up with rice and meat inside.

I am looking forward to the food in Changchun. When I tell people that I am going to the Northeast of China, they are enthusiastic about the food there; however, wheat, not rice, is the staple in those parts. Steamed rolls are supposed to be outrageously good. I might have to just see if my system can handle wheat again!

I had lunch with Cathy Silber who took over as the staff person for Granite State Fair Tax Coalition after I left, but in a prior life she was the director of the Chinese language program at Williams College and worked at various other colleges, sharing her knowledge of Mandarin, which she picked up living in China twenty years ago before the Dragon had woken. We had a fun exchange and agreed that she would help with my blog so that I can give people a sense of what has changed in the ensuing two decades of rapid transformation.

We also agreed to meet three or four times before I depart to work on my Chinese language skills. The only thing I know in Mandarin is ni hao, which looks like the characters to the left and means "Hello." Ni hao is the phonetic English spelling referred to as pinyin. Pinyin is the official system to transcribe Chinese characters to teach Mandarin Chinese in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Republic of China (Taiwan), Malaysia and Singapore

My friend, Andy Sylvia, who has some grasp of written (simplified) and spoken Chinese already pointed me to www.nciku.com, an invaluable resource for the neophyte hoping to make sense of a complicated tonal language. Another friend, Irene Rawlings, who wrote The Clothesline Book with Andrea van Steenhouse, is sending me some CDs for Christmas that will allow me to learn some of the sounds and key words and phrases.

My excitement is building every day.