- Mysterious cultural stereotypes. This morning I walked into work wearing jeans and a slightly lacy, periwinkle-colored top. One of my coworkers inspected my outfit and declared, “You’re looking very Scottish today!”
- Language skill progress. Even though I still have plenty of days where I shake my head at how poor my Chinese is, I have noticeably improved in two areas: speaking to people on the phone, and engaging in smalltalk.
It used to be that if I needed to call someone on the phone I would plan out what I was going to say, and look up any key words I didn’t know; when people called me, I would get a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach and wonder how I might be able to avoid picking up. (The reasons for this are basically that speaking on the phone robs you of the physical cues and props you might use to make yourself understood if language fails you, plus the other person usually sounds tinny and distant.) Now I just barrel through phone calls, repeating myself if necessary, asking people to speak more clearly if necessary, and only have a minor feeling of dread when I get calls at the office. Progress!
It’s only when you operate in a foreign language that you realize how truly inane smalltalk can be, because you have to learn what it is that other people say when they don’t really want to have a conversation but are just trying to be polite. I used to not engage in this at all and, when encountering people on the street, the conversation would go something like this:
ME: Oh, hello!
UNFORTUNATE ACQUAINTANCE: Hello!
ME: Well…goodbye! <breaks into a run>
It was only this afternoon that I noticed I had gotten better at this when I ran into a professional acquaintance on my way home. After some minor hesitation I was able to ask her about her weekend plans, make some banter about being tired (Chinese people are like New Yorkers – they LOVE to talk about how stressed and tired they are), and exit the scene with only a few key moments of awkwardness. Progress!
- Chinese desserts. If you have a very Western flavor palette, one of the tricky things about eating in China can be dessert. The Western appetite for dessert is generally dependent on an intimate relationship with dairy products (if you have ever tried to make vegan brownies on the fly, you know what I am talking about) and dairy comprises a very small part of, and very recent addition to, most Chinese people’s diets. As a result, more traditional Chinese desserts are simply fresh fruit (sometimes mysterious sour fruits that you don’t really feel like eating), or dried and candied fruits, or things that rely heavily on glutinous rice and soy milk.
More recent additions to the Chinese dessert world are imitations of Westerns desserts gone VERY wrong, such as elaborately designed and delicious-looking cakes that deflate into a pile of crumbs and drippy filling when you poke them with a fork, or Mexican-bakery-style cookies covered in sprinkles that would actually be better used as a weapon in a street fight.
But I have actually come to really like Chinese desserts because a) I like glutinous rice and soy milk, and increasingly enjoy random candied fruits, and b) I get so much pleasure out of looking at frothy cakes sculpted into dragons and Hello Kitties that it’s sort of OK with me if you don’t really get to eat them. PLUS! Yesterday I discovered this dessert:
Looks like soft serve over vanilla pudding or something, right? But get closer…
It’s totally made of ice! But it is soft and refreshing, like running outside after a fresh snowfall and planting your face in the ground. It has the amusing effect of making you feel totally full immediately after eating it, and then hungry again 20 minutes later when you realize that you basically consumed a giant pile of water with a bit of sugar on top. The stuff underneath is sort of reminiscent of vanilla pudding – except it’s overly reliant on glutinous rice, as far as I can tell…ah well. It can be purchased at the hilariously named shop pictured below, which I hear is actually Taiwanese (but I subscribe to the political philosophy of “One Country, Many Desserts”, so it’s OK).
The above version is “caramel” flavor; it comes in variety of others including green tea and “chocolate”, surrounded by lotus seeds, red or green beans, and chunks of corn. I’m working on it.
Happy weekend, Readers!