Saturday, March 13, 2004

American clothes are much more streamlined and simple in design than the ones I'm used to buying in Beijing. I couldn't find one blouse that's embellished with ribbons, beads, or intricate weaving that you see everywhere in Chinese shops. Is it because American women do not aim to be young & cute? Here, the magazines and tv shows still idolize youthful celebrities, they just act very mature for their age. The media-projected ideal image in America is someone who is on the cusp of 18, yet looks all-knowing at the same time.

In Chinese, cute literally means "lovable." Americans reserve its use for men who are handsome. But you do not compliment a Chinese man on his "cuteness," a popular phrase I've heard used in Beijing for good-looking men is, "He's a girl assassasin." This underlying element of violence is present in America too, unfortunately, "so and so is a knockout," "he made her," "he scored," etc. Like women are rewards in a game.

People have less respect for age here. Seniority is usually a good thing in China, not that dementia is attractive, but being of a certain age automatically grants you respect in most situations. Your name will have an "old" moniker attached to it once you get to a certain age; say your last name was Chen, you usual name would be Xiao Chen (young Chen). Now you'll be known and called by Lao Chen (old Chen). The dividing line could be mid-40s, sometimes later. I gather it's not good to be called "old" anything in America though. The ones I've heard are hardly flattering, old geezer, dirty old man, old fart....

I made the mistake of giving up a seat for an elderly woman on the bus the other day and she didn't seem that grateful. Should I have just sat there and watched her grapple with her assorted bags and grip the bus pole at the same time? I can't second-guess myself on these trivial things. Just like it was not easy coming here, once you've started on a path, you should just stick with the fewer choices you're left with and do not look back.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Of Beans and Money

Kitty's house is in a gated community in Queens (I thought only Hollywood had these cloistered spaces) -- it's what some New Yorkers call a "nice" neighborhood. I dropped off a pressure cooker-made pot of mung beans and tofu skin stew. Tofu skins look like dried-up yellow pieces of driftwood in the packaging, after you soak them in water for a hour or two, they become moist and soft. Then they're ready for any kind of dish you could think of. Frying, stewing, steaming, tossed as a salad. Mild in flavor, they are good sources of protein and relatively low-carb, one of Kitty's requests.

Why do Americans have these neatly divided squares of bad and good neighborhoods? Though some Chinese cities are starting to have them too -- often with names like "Emperor Spring Garden," which make them sound like brothels -- it's usually hard to really separate one from the city at large. Here, it seems, the richer one gets, the farther away this person can get from other human beings. What Americans disdainfully refer to as sprawl are hard-earned modernization for the rest of the world. Levittown is a good thing, give me a templated house anytime.

I normally don't use other people's restrooms unless I had to, but public restrooms are so hard to find in New York (in Beijing there are fee-required ones, and do look for non-free ones if you ever go, trust me), so I had to use the one downstairs in her house. The waste basket looked almost full, and I thought about replacing the liner, when I reached down to lift up the basket though, it felt really heavy. Would you have tried again, of course you would, like a horror movie heroine, I looked underneath. There are rolls of cash in the basket!

I have heard of some old-school Chinese immigrants being reluctant to use the banks here, or else their cash is all earned the tax-free way, via restaurant work, or some under-the-table seedy deals, so they have everything tucked here and there around the house, collecting dust instead of interest. But using a waste basket? I would have used the mattress, like that classic fairy tale of the princess and the pea, only I'd have lain awake, knowing that cash, not legume, is keeping me up.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

House of Tofu

Living in a house is nice -- you can make frozen tofu easily. I woke up, trotted to the kitchen, opened the door, and viola, the bowl of tofu I set out last night has already frozen to a ready-to-be cooked state. I didn't use boxed tofu, instead, I picked up some loose brine-soaked tofu which are sold by weight at Asian grocers (why am I using this US Census-invented term? Describing myself as Asian is the first step of assimilation I fear). They don't have preservatives and are cheaper. If you're somewhere warmer, pop them in the freezer and you'll have the same result. But something in the frost makes them much firmer and tastier.

I made a big pot of tofu, bamboo shoots (from dented cans -- botulism-alert), and soybean sprouts stew. Not bad, I can eat off of this effort for a few days. Much as I love Korean kimchi-flavored instant noodles, eating so much chili is making me antsy.

Digging into my lunch at Dr. Zhou's clinic, I saw from the corner of my eye this over-accessorized woman in her 40s. Her hair is highlighted into four shades of blonde, so from the back, you'd think she was white. How misleading for men... She saw me at the front desk and sashayed over, then demanded in a half-English, half-Chinese mumble, "Is she ready to see me?"

Dr. Zhou rushed out from the inner offices of the clinic, where a patient has just started her treatment, and motioned for me to pour this caricature some American ginseng tea. I learned her name -- Kitty, there might also be a Mrs. attached. The spelling must mean she's Hong Kongnese. Women like that never lack for pocket money. Her days are spent dim-summing and shopping at European boutiques. If she produced any offspring, often named Spencer, Winston, or Clarissa, they are shuffled off to Swiss boarding schools so they can come back to Hong Kong and look down on their fellow Chinese.

I learned through their conversation that she's here to improve her circulation so that she can play polo again. Is that what the little embroidered guy on the overpriced, often imitated shirts is captured doing? (Note to self, add more pepper to this stew.) Now I feel bloated and resentfully envious of a woman who spends $200-plus a month on her hair. My expression might have made me look like I was deep in thought, but I was really pondering how much seasoning to add without making the whole thing too sodium-heavy.

When Kitty glanced over at my aluminum canteen and saw my lunch, she squealed, "You can cook?!" I gave a non-chalant shrug and didn't reply -- I didn't think her vocabulary included more than "Is it this season?" and "Make her stop crying, (nanny's name)." Dr. Zhou has decided that I need more torturing than seeing many strangers semi-nude when they disrobe for treatment, however, and volunteered my expertise in "food-based natural healing." She mouthed something to me that I didn't quite catch. I was too amused to say anything, if trying different supplements when they come out and trying diets makes me a health expert, then I'll gladly take on this role.

After ms. caricature left me her card and glided out the door, Dr. Zhou explained that she needed someone to make her soy-based dishes since she's peri-menopausal and in denial. I could stop by her house and make her some tofu rolls or deep-fried tofu curds sometime? I guess I could, gas guaranteed.