ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms

July 2008

Books and Musings13 Jul 2008

I unexpectedly found myself on the side of the road Friday when my bus driver declared “last stop” rather sooner than usual. Making the best of it I walked down to the grocery store, and my route took me past Chapters. I have a hard time walking past a bookstore. My poor-studenthood used to keep the bibliospending in check, but now it takes all sorts of mental effort. As I neared the entrance I started enumerating all the reasons why I shouldn’t stop: I still have books I haven’t read from the last Amazon order, I have one more library book to finish and two more I’m planning to borrow, I just bought a copy of The New Yorker the other day, etc. As I passed a group of patrons sitting outside the attached coffee shop, a young woman turned to her friends and articulated the reason she wouldn’t be going into the bookstore:

“I haven’t read a whole book since like grade 4.” How could I argue with that? I walked on.

A couple weeks ago in the wake of the aforementioned amazon order, I signed up for an Ottawa Public Library card. I’m not sure why I didn’t do so sooner; public libraries are awesome, especially in the age of the interweb. The library catalog is searchable online, books can be requested online, renewed online, etc. The chance to read widely and with no risk (don’t like the book on the history of parsnips in 18th century France? Take it back and get one about the frogs of the Amazon) is something I’m quickly going to be unable to live without, I’m sure.

I am a little puzzled about how libraries are allowed to exist in our capitalist society. The intellectual property giants scream and cry against file sharing, but never seem to complain about libraries: state-sponsored institutions that will lend you as many movies, cds, and books as you want, for free. Perhaps, because libraries traditionally deal in books and, as such luminaries as Steve Jobs well know, books don’t matter, they are given a free pass? Who knows. Don’t knock it. Get a library card.

Food and Photos and Travel05 Jul 2008

It’s not exactly a secret that “Chinese food” as often experienced in North America (egg rolls, chicken balls, fried rice, fortune cookies, etc.) is not something a typical Chinese person would be familiar with. Finding out exactly where and how this particular deep-fried cuisine originated would probably make for a fun project, but it isn’t my project today. I’m going to talk about the food I ate while I was in China. Thanks to Shengrong’s cooking and the occasional trip to a more authentic Chinese restaurant (they exist), I didn’t find the food to be totally outlandish, but there were a few strange bumps in the culinary road.

In Beijing, we stayed on the campus of the China University of Geosciences, and ate a few of our meals at one of the University restaurants, “”. One of my favorite things there were battered chicken wings heavily spiced with cumin. Shengrong ordered those on our first day since they’re more like the kind of food I’m used to. That was really the only meal in which I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to manage the food without any trouble, as I was really tired and jetlegged at the time. After that I ate everything happily, and when I got back to Canada I found my own cooking kind of boring for the first few days. Unsurprisingly, I got a lot better at handling chopsticks.

At the entrance of “Local Food” – it was pretty large and usually full of diners.

In a nice room of the restaurant where we ate lunch a few times, overlooking the university quad.

Naturally, we had to try Beijing Duck during our stay in Beijing. We ate it in “Quan ju de”, the most famous Beijing Duck restaurant, just off Tian’anmen Square. The duck is cooked with a crispy outside and then cut into small slices. You mix a few slices with leek, cucumber and a special sauce and roll them in thin pastries, using your chopsticks. It took me a while to get the hang of it, but I really liked the end result.

Some ducks waiting to be Beijing’d.

Shengrong ordering duck.

Other highlights from Beijing included a surprisingly good (and cheap) meal of chicken and black bean procured very late at night from a small student-frequented spot on campus, and dumplings at the great wall.

We had several nice meals in Wuhan, both at restaurants and as cooked by Shengrong’s mom. Shengrong and I cooked a few dishes on our last night there, using some spices we brought from home. I’m not sure how well they went over, but everyone in the family had the good grace to eat them and smile…

The Chinese answer to the question of “what shall we eat?” is often different from ours. For example: when we’d stop for ice cream, Shengrong would select a mung bean flavored popsicle. I wish I’d taken a picture – they were such a delightful shade of green. I tried one and was nonplussed. The American tourists whom Shengrong helped order snacks at the Beijing museum weren’t too keen on the mung bean flavor either. Can’t say I blame them.
Another cultural quirk that I wasn’t really expecting is that nobody in China drinks anything cold. And heaven forbid you should want a cool glass of water… the best you’re likely to do is a cup of hot tea minus the tea. Even the bottled water would be on a shelf and not in a cooler. As someone drinks a lot of water in a typical day, this took some getting used to.

The table at a place where we ate in Wuhan. There are a few differences between the Chinese restaurant experience and the one we have here. For starters, larger restaurants are usually better quality: the concept of a tiny restaurant with a limited menu and delicious food doesn’t really exist there. People tend to dine out in large groups (the bigger the crowd, the more dishes you can order, after all) and often eat in private rooms. Chinese place-settings are different from what a Westerner would expect: one receives chopsticks (naturally), a spoon, a small plate on which to put bones and other things you aren’t going to eat, and a small bowl, in which you put your rice and a few morsels from various dishes.

Three dishes from that meal: soft-shelled turtle, squid, pork.

Brother turtle, up close.

I put some thought into what the strangest thing I ate in China was. High on the list was having oatmeal for breakfast. That, in and of itself, is not unusual, but I’d never eaten oatmeal with chopsticks before, which lent the proceedings a kind of surreal air. I liked breakfast in China generally, and enjoyed the dumplings and the sticky rice with mushrooms and tofu and egg, which is a typical Wuhan breakfast dish.

But no, the strangest thing I ate in China was probably this:

It’s the ovaries of some kind of special frog, stuffed inside a papaya. Apparently considered a delicacy. I’m not sure how the chef who invented that got his inspiration… How was it? Kind of watery and not strongly flavored.

This isn’t really of anything we ate, but I put it in out of interest since it’s broadly food-related:

It’s a little hard to make out because I was far away, but those guys are dynamiting fish in Wuhan’s east lake. I’d never seen that before. The fish were flying out of the water like popcorn.

And lastly, Chinese Dairy Queen. The prices were ridiculously expensive. 26 yuan will get you a frosty, or 26 servings of rice at any other restaurant. Your choice.

Musings02 Jul 2008

I’ll write more about China soon, I promise. Here’s a photo of a giant Buddha to tied you over.

In the mean time, I bring you an observation. Tonight I subscribed to a magazine and ordered a video game. In both cases I ordered online from American websites. The best thing about buying things online is the instant gratification factor. I think the reason the iTunes Music Store does so well, for example, is that you can listen to your new song in a few minutes. Buying a CD in a shop is still pretty quick (if you can find what you want), but you still have to take it home and peel the plastic off. That being said, not all online purchase experiences are created equal.

My magazines will start arriving in 6-8 weeks. My video game could have shipped tomorrow, but instead of a boxed copy I elected for a digital download. At time of writing, I need to wait another 23 minutes for my game.

Four to six weeks vs. 30 minutes. I know that magazines are inherently different from video games in that one is printed on paper (and although it can be read online, there really is something to be said for paper) and mailed to you while the other is made of bits and can be transported magically over wires, but it’s hard not to draw old media vs new media comparisons here. The “new media” understands that having something now, or at least soon, is quite compelling. Whereas, I really don’t understand why it’ll take two months for me to receive the first issue of my weekly magazine. What are they going to do for the next 7 weeks between taking my money and mailing me my reading material? Chop down the trees by hand, make the paper, and ink the pages themselves? It doesn’t make much sense to me, especially given that “old media” has been predicting it’s own death for some time now. Come on guys, the giant New Media T-Rex that is eating everything in sight is getting closer. The least you can do is run a little faster.

News and Photos01 Jul 2008

More China in a bit, but today is Canada Day! We saw the RCMP musical ride at Parliament Hill.

This is about as Canadian as possible.

The camera actually got a better view than we did. I snapped most of these photos holding the camera at arm’s length over my head and hoping for the best. The crowds were huge.

This one was at the end of the performance when the crowds had thinned a little.

A couple of mounties actually lost their hats during the “charge” maneuver. Presumably that is frowned upon…

After the demonstration, a few of the calmer horses came to visit with the spectators. One expects an RCMP horse to be steady as anything, but we actually saw a few spook from the crowds and from the marching band that passed while they were waiting to begin their show.

Ever the optimist, I took some fireworks photos, even though such things are difficult to do well. We were right down by the river and you can see the reflections in the water.

Happy Canada Day.