Friday, May 24, 2013

Durian: How Great Thou Stink!

Today, I just want to share a picture of a durian that my lovely girlfriend took. It was 58 yuan for this one--not a cheap price for a single piece of fruit.

This fruit is famous for its potent smell, but is so utterly tasty. Either you hate it or love it, but there is no denying it is the consistency of butter and nearly as rich, but much sweeter. In addition to mango, durian is a staple of the Hong Kong-style (Cantonese) dessert places that were mentioned in my last post. I have often wondered who has the job of collecting them for human consumption (learn more here). They grow high in trees and are absolutely deadly, especially when falling from a great height.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

More Popular than Fortune Cookies: Cantonese Desserts

I grew up in a household where my mother always coached us that we should begin reading any menu from the bottom up, because that way you could know what to save room for. In addition, my maternal clan prides itself on an affinity for chocolate. These confessions aside, my mother had a strict rule for her three children: If you did not have fruit for dessert at lunch time, you had to have it at dinnertime. My little sister, who will graduate from law school tomorrow and has always been re-writing the rules, would sometimes "fib" so that she could have ice cream or some non-fruit desert item. I remember vaguely some rather complex legal maneuvering to prove that fruit had been consumed at her primary school cafeteria. I am sure that the standard of proof was not "beyond a reasonable doubt", but what would you expect from a mother who professes a hatred of vegetables and a distaste for most anything that does not come from a dead animal or the dessert menu.

Glutinous rice balls in mango with a scoop
of mango sorbet, 28yuan in Changchun and
38 yuan in Beijing
There is a gorgeous little boutique that has opened up a block from where I work. It is a Cantonese dessert restaurant that satisfies the fruit requirement and also would lead most customers to want to begin with dessert. There is really no other choice.

Most American "Chinese restaurants" offer some riff of Cantonese or Sichuan food, two vastly different cuisines. In my limited experience, though, most of them are long on ginger ice cream and fortune cookies, but short on any other options for dessert. Well, in China, dessert is certainly a rarity, but not as uncommon as somebody who has heard of a fortune cookie. Aside from some bakeries and Western-style cake shops, I don't know of any other strictly dessert restaurants in our city.

Deborah (Jingjing), my girlfriend, and I first went to this Cantonese dessert restaurant a few months back just before they ripped out its innards for a high-class remodeling effort. When she told me that she had walked by and it was gone, I was disappointed. Today, I found that it was just having a face-lift. These places are, from my quick survey of the web, beginning to catch on elsewhere in China. Beijing Today ran a story over a year ago about three new places opening there:

"Cantonese desserts, especially sweet and iced ones like herb jelly teas, are hard to find in Beijing.
Following in the footsteps of Manji, a dessert chain that opened on the mainland, Hui Lau Shan, another well-known Hong Kong brand, opened three stores in Beijing last week. They have 100 desserts made from mixed fruits and homemade ingredients."

On your next trip to Changchun, I hope that you will check it out on Xikang Lu between Tongzhi Jie and Lixin Jie.

On Literature from (or of) China by its Nobel Laureates

First, I read Soul Mountain. Then, I read The Good Earth. Now, I am in the midst of Red Sorghum. The first is by Gao Xingjian (b. 1940). The second and, perhaps, the most famous was penned by Pearl Buck in 1931; it won a Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1932. This year's Nobel Prize for Literature went to Mo Yan (b. 1955). Each of these books are, arguably, the best known works of three Nobel Laureates for Literature. Mr. Gao is Chinese born and now a citizen of France. Ms. Buck was an American of European extraction, but raised in China by missionary parents. Mr. Yan is a citizen of the People's Republic of China and was born in Shandong, the province where Confucius lived so long ago.

To my way of thinking, Soul Mountain is the best of these three books. The New York Times review describes the richness and success of this inventive piece. "His 81 chapters are an often bewildering and considerably uneven congeries of forms: vignettes, travel writing, ethnographic jottings, daydreams, nightmares, recollections, conversations, lists of dynasties and archeological [sic] artifacts, erotic encounters, legends, current history, folklore, political, social and ecological commentary, philosophical epigrams, vivid poetical evocation and much else." It also took me the longest amount of time to read. Dense and esoteric, it needs to be chewed slowly.

For a pithy description of Buck, read the Foreign Affairs book review of Spurlings's biography, Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth. That her book needs to be defended still as more than just the racist memoir of a missionary's daughter is sad. It is surely a great work, but our dissatisfaction with it now should be, and is, that it is a period piece with little remaining relevance to current day China.

For an accurate portrayal of the diseased language of Mo Yan, read Anna Sun's critique. She is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Asian Studies at Kenyon College, who has been a McDowell Colony fellow in fiction.

Mo Yan bashing has become a popular sport and I am not eager to join the ranks. Ai Weiwei, the loudmouth artist-dissident who continues to suffer under house arrest in Beijing, went even further than Salman Rushdie, who stopped at calling Mr. Mo a "patsy." Mr. Ai said, “Giving the award to a writer like this is an insult to humanity and to literature. It’s shameful for the committee to have made this selection which does not live up to the previous quality of literature in the award.”

I would say that Mo Yan is not a patsy; he is an apparatchik and employee of the PLA Cultural Affairs Department. It is impractical or even silly to want him to be different than he is.

While a bit more subtle than the boosterism, propagandizing, and censorship facially apparent in My Husband Puyi: Last Emperor of China, the book that I am in the middle of is not subtle or graceful. His "hallucinatory realism", which is how literary critics brand his non-chronological storytelling, has none of the artfulness of Gao Xingjian's meandering novel. Still, it is a worthwhile read. Why? Because it is a riveting, action-packed, made for the movies drama.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Embarrassment of President Obama's Presidency?

Ain't No Full Mettle Backin'

in memory of Francois-Marie Arouet (with a couple nods to Allen Ginsberg and Bruce Springsteen)

Was not Voltaire himself thrown into the Bastille after his conviction on May 16, 1717, for satirizing a ridiculous government?

As the very last person from America who still has an iota of pride for supporting the philandering philanthropic Philistine, John "son-of-a-millworker" Edwards, I am ready to join The Old Grey Lady in lambasting the duly-elected, never-my-choice President, but I will not pretend to be writing "news" when I am editorializing. Nor will I cite the same things that "reporter" Peter Baker did in this morning's top-headline-posing-as-news: "He presides over a government that to critics appears ever more intrusive, dictating health care choices, playing politics with the Internal Revenue Service and snooping into journalists’ phone records." [my emphasis] Baker's list is the flash-in-the-pan, sensational, ripped-from-the-headlines chaff that sells dying print-media to "the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked." My list is more substantive and grave, IMHO...much like my careful use of IM lexical phraseology.

At least since Tammany Hall and probably since John Winthrop added his John Hancock to the Mayflower Compact (that is not a mixed metaphor, but an anachronism), we have seen, in American government, the sort of silly business that the IRS has now been accused of. In fact, the clear-eyed and level-headed will probably find that, while partisans certainly over-stepped, the far bigger contributing factor to their malfeasance was the blundering idiocy that is born of mammoth bureaucracies. A tax code that is larger than the OED begs revision.

That the whodunit nonsense of Benghazi can be strung out by the news stringers for another month is the absurdity brought to us by the simian listener-ship of SS-Unterscharführer Glenn Beck and Rush "12-step-programming" Limbaugh. Does Joe Six-Pack or Jose Wetback (the contingent of voters that will matter in coming elections) really think the credibility of this Presidency and its political party hinge on how many agencies helped develop talking points for talk-show hosts one Saturday morning in October or on the Justice Department's just investigation of a national security leak? It is not like Eric Holder, Susan Rice and Victoria Nuland were creeping around with flashlights in some hotel, despite what FOX might contend.

That the once careful editors of the United States' paper-of-record would permit "dictating health care choices" to appear in Mr. Baker's fanciful list of reasons that "critics" see Mr. Obama as unable to master his presidency rankles me. I am no huge defender of the incremental Obamacare proposal; however, it is not Obamacare, folks. It is the legislatively approved law-of-the-land and our POTUS is charged with carrying it out.

All of this Peter Baker mumbo-jumbo is outrageous, for sure. It is the sort of news that feeds political apathy and the sense of hopelessness best exemplified by my friend-of-a-Facebook-friend who just accepted my gentle correction that the sexual assault case from the military that she thought she heard about a week ago was, in fact, a different case not involving a sergeant responsible for sexual harassment at Fort Hood, but instead "the recent arrest of the Air Force's head of sexual assault prevention on charges of groping a woman."

This stuff all needs to give-way to the real problems of our generation which are "dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix." Here is my list for Obama about stuff that really calls into question "Mr. Obama’s ability to master his own presidency."

Number one: Stand behind your environmental women. First, Lisa Jackson and now Gina McCarthy deserve your full-mettle backing. You were a sunshine patriot and summer soldier with Jackson, often letting her get run over by a natural-gas powered bus, and now you have boldly put forth McCarthy as your next Cabinet-level EPA Administrator. Listen to Maureen Dowd. Stop being a sally. Cut some fucking deals and install the people you need to act like grown-ups in your Administration. The only thing that matters for the continuation of our great republic and a bearable human existence, for that matter, is the mitigation and adaptation strategies that you put in place for climate change. That responsibility has been squandered by every Administration since 1988 and simply cannot wait until 2016...or the return of Billary. 

Number two: While Paul Krugman and Rogoff-Reinhart dicker about coding errors in Excel sheets (with the full involvement of the pundit class of the Financial Times, New York Times, Guardian, and WSJ ), drive through a bailout with some teeth. Do you want to be remembered as the douche-bag who believed in investment, but stood by as austerity measures were imposed? I am no supporter of American exceptionalism, but we ain't the PIIGS or even Olde England. We may not have German unemployment rates, but we have some wiggle-room. Let Chancellor of the Exchequer and Second Lord of the Treasury George Gideon Oliver Osborne exhume the ghost of Margaret Thatcher. You need to get on with the Keynesian agenda...and I don't mean eugenics.

Number three:  I am sure that you will manage to castrate Krusinski and you let Matlovich be "out." Huzzah! Now it is time to do Eisenhower's bidding and hold a bake-sale. If you cannot reverse the death march of the military-industrial complex, if you let us get dragged into more endless wars, not only will you make a mockery of the Nobel Peace Prize that you received in your early moments in office, but you will condemn the United States by leaving it ripe for a rising fascism.

Number four: Mr. Obama, tear down that prison. The school board of Newtown, CT, can vote to tear down their school and re-build in just a few short months, but we have waited five long years for you to restore America's moral high-ground by razing Guantanamo.

Keep your eyes on the prize.