Saturday, December 19, 2009

Apparently, I'm Santa Claus in Beijing

It seems like November and December is when most younger expats and students go home for a few weeks. Thanksgiving and Christmas make the trip pretty appealing - also, Beijing gets REALLY REALLY cold.

As you probably know, Veronica successfully defended her thesis last week and has since returned home on her original ticket before returning to start work in January. A lot of our friends have left too, but a fair amount stayed too. One of them (HEY JEN!) teaches English, is arranging a literary festival (with no carbon footprint) and seems to do a whole bunch of other cool stuff. The other day, she asked if I was interested in playing Santa Claus for a bunch of Chinese children.

To be perfectly blunt, and slightly grinchy, my first question involved payment. After that was resolved my only other question was if I needed to gain any weight to become Santa! It was set - I was going to be Santa. And everyone knows, Santa doesn't speak Chinese.

China is not a very religious society, and is definitely not Christian. However, the "red and white" celebration of Christmas is VERY popular over here. Restaurants and stores have displays and schools and offices have parties. I'm pretty sure that no one knows who Jesus was, but they all know who Santa is - ME!

I took the subway to the first location in need of a Santa and was met by a library employee who took me to get changed and ushered me in to the restaurant hosting their Christmas party.

Now, for those of you who forgot (or don't know me), I'm Jewish. I haven't really done anything for Christmas since my family stopped celebrating it when I was four (or so) years old. I've been to a few friends' and extended family's Christmas parties, but I really don't know too much about the holiday. I sort of panicked when I realized that I probably couldn't sing most Christmas songs if I was put on the spot. Then I remembered...

Secular, English-Only Santa pretty much just says HO HO HO MERRY CHRISTMAS a whole bunch and gives out the gifts that the he's been told to give. Whew.

I had two engagements as Santa today. The first was for slightly older children (5-10) and the second was mainly children under 5 or 6. I was surprised, out of the entire 60 children I Santa'ed, there were about 4 children that seemed pretty fluent in English and a bunch more than knew more than just "Merry Christmas, Hello Thank You". I clearly couldn't speak Chinese as well as some of these kids. But I did try. When it was clear that the children didn't understand my English, I tried my Chinese. Sometimes it worked - often it didn't - all the time it was fun.

Unfortunately, the teachers didn't take as many fun pictures of me with the kids as I would have liked - but they did manage to take one of this creepy, two-headed clown that made balloon animals.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Happy Hanukkah from Beijing

December brings, among other things, a handful of winter holidays. The most important two, for me, are Hanukkah and Marc Zeiger-Guerra day. Marc Zeiger-Guerra day falls on December 29th and has been celebrated throughout the world since 1981, the day upon which Marc Zeiger-Guerra was born. It is a VERY easy holiday to remember, as it falls between the birth of Jesus and the start of the new year. Same day, every year.

Hanukkah, however, is a little more difficult to keep track of, as it follows the lunar calendar. One would think that observing a lunar cycle holiday in a country that has many lunar holidays would be quite easy. Not the case. Despite its status as the most famous Jewish holiday, pretty much no Jew ever knows when it is. I am no exception to the annual forgetfulness. I only learned about Hanukkah's start date (December 11th) by receiving an email from a friend (HEY ALISON!) about a potluck.

Most of the traditional foods associated with Hanukkah involve a lot of oil. The most well known are latke's (potato pancakes) and sufganyot (jelly donuts). I've never made jelly donuts and was not about to start now. But I figured latkes would be pretty easy to make with readily available supplies. Veronica ducked outside to pick up some potatoes and yams and we set about chopping them up into fine slivers for the pancakes. Add in some eggs and flour (we used dumpling flour), shape into blobs and flatten in oil. Toss in some salt and pepper and you've got some genuine chinese sweetpotato latkes.
As it turns out, I was one of two latke makers that night. The other chef (HEY Aaron) used a Julia Child recipe that included all sorts of cream and deliciousness. Between the two of us we made WAY more than we all could eat. So we had latkes and omelettes the next morning.

There were a nice handful of expats there that night and we ate, lit candles and sang some hanukkah songs. No dreidel was played, but there was some gelt presentVeronica and I plan to light candles every night. I'm not sure when the last time I did that was, but I'm excited. We should probably get each other some presents too...

Master Master Lee

In case you haven't heard the news (or the legends for that matter) I recently had the good luck to encounter a great Master, Master Lee. Master Lee is actually a double master, in the ancient arts of Environmental Management and Environmental Engineering. And her first name is Veronica.

This past Friday, December 11th, Veronica successfully defended her dual Masters' Degree thesis before a panel that included faculty members from both Tsinghua University and Mines ParisTECH (formerly Ecole de Mines), along with representatives from her internship and her company's parent company. The defense was held in the Sino-Italian Environmental Sciences building on Tsinghua's Campus at 8:45am.

Since I work on a time-shifted schedule, I was able to attend. We arrived, through the blustery cold, to see life sized stand-ups of each students' thesis abstract, accompanied by a headshot picture posted in the lobby. Clearly I had to take a picture.

Veronica's defense was impressive. And I don't say that simply because I'm an adoring boyfriend. Really. If she were selling theses, I'd have bought one. I mean, look at her there with her powerpoint clicker assessing Energy and Resources and Mitigation thingies. I clearly didn't understand everything she presented, but the faculty seemed pretty impressed.

In my time here, I've heard many differing views on the state of the Chinese education system. In general, sentiment seems to be that standards are trending upwards and a greater emphasis is being placed on creating and inquisitive thought as opposed to rote memorization. This was not demonstrated particularly well during the first few minutes of questions posed to Veronica about her thesis.

The first two professors literally grilled her on the FORMATTING of her thesis. I'll elaborate on some specifics, because it bears repeating:
1: Thesis was printed with a medium light green cover, should have been a very light green cover.
2: Chinese title of thesis used one word for "valley", but abstract used a different word. The word chosen for the abstract (of the many possible "valley" words in Chinese) should have been used in the title as well.
3: Some charts used commas to separate thousands and others didn't
4: Some charts included differing number of decimal places
5: Inserted figures should not be surrounded by borders.

Granted, they did provide students with a FIFTEEN PAGE document outlining the format they wanted. But the fact that the first handful of questions indicated that some people may have been providing grades based on very superficial, "rule-following" aspects of the students' work.

The remainder of the questions dealt with substantive issues, almost all of which were addressed in the thesis itself and for which Veronica had elegant and excellent answers. The deliberations didn't take long and as of about 9:30am, December 11th 2009, Veronica Lee has two masters degrees. In May, after a retooling of the thesis for University of Pennsylvania, she'll have three.

I don't have a single masters degree, but my last name totally has, like, nine more letters than her's. She may have more letters to put after her name, but at least I have more letters IN my name.

Congratulations Veronica!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Boiling Herbs - Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing Part 3

Some people have told me that I'm being too graphic and that my readers don't want to hear about my sinuses or phlegm production. They are probably right - but that doesn't mean I'm going to completely scale back. I'll parse my judgement through the filter of someone that I trust (Veronica) and you'll end up with my slightly toned down, yet fully detailed reports on my treatments.

I'm almost finished with my first regiment of herbs and nasal irrigation and its definitely working. My reactions are getting smaller and smaller and between treatments I'm more clear than ever before. Boiling and smelling the herbs doesn't really seem to do much, but the irrigation itself is where the magic happens.

chinese traditional medicine herbs
At my last visit the doctor threw in some acupuncture to the normal massages. It was similar to some that I'd had done in the states, although that was to treat my feet. It's really interesting how Eastern medicine sees this all as related. All of my US doctors compartmentalized my problems.

I'm really interested to see if any new healthcare reform back in the states involves better, more simplified tracking of medical records. I'm always a little concerned when I switch doctors and the new doctor asks me about my medical history. Usually I'm pretty good about getting my records forwarded to my new office and I like to think my memory is strong, but ultimately, it can't be that good to diagnose anything without a better understanding of the whole picture.

Chinese medicinal theory may not have to apply to the same standards, as the initial exam by most TCM doctors includes a holistic check up to see what is balanced and out of balance. This is how my doctor here picked up on my hip and feet problems without me even mentioning it. I haven't had a doctor in the states express any interest in secondary or tertiary potentially unrelated symptoms when I've gone in for colds or respiratory issues.

As always, I remain cautiously optimistic.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing (Part 2)

My last post ended with a visit to a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Pharmacy (P). Right after I finished typing, I went into the kitchen to prepare my first batch of herbal remedy. See pile of herbs below:

This is where things get interesting. There are two parts to the treatment.

Part One:
Herb Boiling and Steam Inhalation.
As you can see in the picture, I need to boil the herbs and inhale the steam. Pretty straightforward. The steam is menthol scented and smells pretty nice. The whole apartment smells great. This didn't seem to do too much for my allergies though.

After about 10-15 minutes, I strain the herbs out and filter the liquid until any particulate matter is gone, let it sit over night and then proceed to part two.

Part Two:
Nasal Irrigation.
This is where things get really gross and really interesting. Nasal irrigation, for the un-initiated, is the process of drinking liquid in through your nose so that it rinses your sinus and nasal cavity. I've done this before, usually using a light saline solution and warm water.

In this case, the liquid is a brownish concoction made from roots, seeds, leaves and god knows what else.

As you can imagine, this was not particularly pleasant. Despite being smooth (no visible sediment) and painless to irrigate, immediately after irrigation - my sinuses BLEW UP. I felt like I was going to get a sinus infection within minutes. Sneezing, runny, stuffy - all the fun stuff at once.

The doctor had warned:
This could either be very good or very very bad. But either way it is good. You must keep doing it, even if it is bad.

This is hard to hear for someone used to western medicine. We are prescribed pills. We take the pills. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don't. It's usually a pretty painless process. Being asked to make a physical sacrifice for my wellness is something I'm not accustomed to - but happy to do.

Since that first irrigation, things have gotten much better. The irritation lasts much less each time and between irrigations I'm much clearer than I've ever been before!

I'm still sold on this stuff! I'll update the blog again when anything substantial changes. I'm really hoping I need "cupping" soon. I've had acupuncture in America (without much "success"), but am particularly interested in being cupped. Technically you can request cupping or go somewhere just to be cupped, but I'd much rather have it recommended as a part of my treatment.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Chinese Traditional Medicine Doctor

I used to assume that most of my readers knew me fairly well, or at least were aware of me. However, my Google analytics has informed me that nearly 75% of my visitors are random people coming via search terms. It warms my soul to know that I'm attracting people who are searching for things like "asian farts" and "chinese baby split pants".

I bring this up, because anyone who actually knows me is aware of my annoying allergies. If you are one of those people that randomly found this blog while trying to figure out how to do a mongolia visa run, be warned - I'm one of those people that has an allergy for all seasons:
Winter: Dust mites
Spring/Summer: Pollen
Fall: Mold/Mildew
All The Damn Time: Cats

I also have a range of off-putting noises to accompany these allergies: Sneezes, Snorts, Coughs and more. In this regard, I blend in fairly well here. People consistently cough and spit up sputum on the streets. Its nice to not have people look at me like a freak when I clear out my throat.

All that said, China also presents a pretty cool opportunity for someone that tried allergy shots and pills his whole life. I've all but given up on western cures for my allergies. Two separate attempts at allergy shots, for over two years each time yielded no results. Claritin and sudafed provide temporary relief but often lead to headaches. I needed to look East.

It took me longer than I'd like to admit, but I'm finally seeing a Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor. I'd like to transition to a doctor that locals go to, but for now I'm seeing a very expat friendly doctor recommended by a friend (shout out Jen!). Just once a week for now, but I'm already sold. Hook, line and sinker.

My first visit was diagnostic with a little bit of treatment. I told him that I had seasonal allergies and he poked and prodded me for a while. Didn't ask any further questions and then had an assistant start massaging and stretching me. After the treatment we discussed my situation and this is where he got me.

1: He prescribed a lot of hip and back stretches for me.
People that know me, also know that I've had chronic knee, hip and back issues. The stretches he told me to do and had his assistant perform on me were identical to stretches my podiatrist and physical therapist told me to do. Those guys were trying to help me run and walk without pain, however my new doctor was working on my allergies! I didn't tell him a word about my back, knees or hips.

2: He knew things about me that I didn't even know!
He asked if I'd had any head or neck trauma as a child or if I had a traumatic birth. I didn't think I had so I told him no. He insisted and told me to ask my parents. I called my mom who informed me that she was in labor with me for TWO days and there were definitely some difficulties during birth. Additionally, someone (no names named or fingers pointed) dropped me on my head when I was quite young. It does explain a lot - but it also blew my mind that this guy could tell all of this.

He then proceeded to give me a list of things I shouldn't do physically:
1: Crack my neck/back
2: Sleep on my stomach
3: Read or watch TV in bed

Along with a list of things I can't eat or drink:
1: Cold Beverages/Sodas
2: Alcohol
3: Chili
4: Seafood
5: Cold foods like Ice Cream and Watermelon
6: Garlic that hasn't been cooked thoroughly

I've done my damnedest to follow his instructions. It's made me practice Chinese a lot more because I always need to ask if food has chili or garlic in it. It's also driven me crazy - I didn't realize how much I crack my neck and back! I never thought sleeping on my back would be so difficult.

Oh and no booze. Seriously. But I'm doing it.

Veronica says I'm getting better and I think I am too. So far treatments have consisted of these massages that really focus on aligning my hips to my head (or something like that). Nothing too "extreme", like acupuncture or cupping yet. But it all depends on what my body needs during a given visit.

Last visit he wrote me up a script for some herbs for a vapor treatment and told me to go to a pharmacy to fill it. This led to my first encounter with a Traditional Chinese Medicine pharmacy. It was really cool and very different from a western pharmacy.
I gave them my script and they began finding, preparing and weighing out herbs. The then divided them up into seven different packets for me to boil, inhale and then use for sinus cleansing. I have NO IDEA what the herbs were or what they do, but my doctor told me that it should help. I trust him and will blindly boil, inhale and then use for sinus cleansing anything he tells me to boil, inhale and then use for sinus cleansing.

Thanksgiving in China, Beijing Style

Welcome to the second installment of "Watch Marc and Veronica attempt to celebrate an American or Jewish Holiday in China with limited resources". You'll recall, the first entry featured Passover and a lovely meal cooked by Marc and Veronica with the assistance and expertise of the lovely Mary D'Agostino.

True to form, this entry features more members of the Lee-D'Agostino clan and their excellent cooking skills. Meet Jessica Lee and Roxana Wells, Veronica's sister and cousin. And know, that when I refer to excellent cooking skills, I'm really referring to Roxana and Veronica. Jess served as more of a "supervisor" and picture taker. I served as "eater", errand boy and potato masher.

Though not an overwhelming meal to cook, especially with an abundance of cooking pumpkins and sweet potatoes, Thanksgiving, like Passover, provided its own set of challenges. Most specifically - where do you find a turkey in Beijing?! And what is the Chinese word for cranberry?

Many of you jokingly asked if we were going to have Thanksgiving Beijing Duck and we almost did! But we had just gone to a fancy roast duck place the night before and, well, we all know what too much duck in a row can do to a person. Unable to find a turkey, we opted for chicken. Nice, roasted, chicken - with head intact and legs and feet stuffed inside. This was a little shocking to Jess and Rox, but by now, I know to go for the neck first and nibble on the feet a bit. I'm not a HUGE chicken feet lover, but I am learning to enjoy them. The neck, however, is succulent and delicious. Its much easier to carve a small roast chicken than a big turkey.

We didn't manage to find cranberries, but veronica improvised an EXCELLENT substitution. Common in marketplaces around this time of year, Chinese haw (山楂 in Chinese and Crataegus Pinnatifida in Science talk) is a small crabapple-like fruit that has a similar taste to cranberries. Veronica substituted haw for cranberries in her mother's recipe and came up with a great haw jelly that I actually preferred to cranberry sauce.

The rest of the meal was fairly standard and delicious. A nice salad with pomegranate and walnuts, lamb meatballs with cilantro and onions, pumpkin and sweet potato soup, mashed sweet potatoes and a pumpkin pie in an IKEA tupperware!

After the meal, I ate a chocolate turkey (THANKS MARY!) and we all fit onto our couch to watch Mulan - which I had never seen but all three cousins sang along to and commented about what aspects of feudal China a Disney cartoon with a talking dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy depicted properly. And then I ate another chocolate turkey.