Saturday, April 13, 2013

Over the Top

Strangely enough, the Chinese don’t seem to be acquainted with the ‘Less is More’ philosophy. In itself that is a paradox, considering the relative simplicity of the typical home over here, especially the kitchen.

As you might know from past entries too numerous to list, the typical Chinese kitchen consists of: a wok and a pot, a round-head spatula (to better cook in a curved bottom wok), a meat cleaver, maybe a knife but definitely a cutting board, a ladle, a few sets of chopstick and a few bowls. There is some sort of heat source for cooking; usually a one burner device, either gas or electronic. Automatic rice steamers are ubiquitous but crock pots are a novelty. Other more recent additions include glassware, refrigerators, a two burner, in the counter cooking surface and dual sinks. Some of the more traditional kitchens do not even have a sink. Countertops are also a fairly new innovation. I’ve been in kitchens where food prep happens on the floor. In those kitchens, often you would find a rickety wooden table serves as the lone surface. Sometimes the dining room table is called into service and sometimes, vegetables are sorted outside, on the tarp-covered ground. I see that a lot in the Over the Wall community.

Mainly because till now, not much has been available to the aspiring chef. But also because traditionally, the kitchens were simple affairs, almost literally a throwback to the days where cooking happened in the main room, over the fire. Only the most elite of citizens had a separate room for cooking. In some villages and even in some parts of Wuhan, cooking happens outdoors, in summer and in winter. For example: shopkeepers have a gas burner, built into a metal stand, and cook outside their shop so that they do not have to close up shop for lunch and lose out on a potential sale.

I made my first discovery of the ‘Less is More’ paradox when reviewing student compositions. I am an Oral English teacher, so normally I would not see anything the kids write. However, because of their many qualifying exams students have to take and their terror being commensurate to the importance of the exam they’re facing, I volunteered to look over and critique their writing.

A lot of their writing style is inane. Adjectives and adverbs liberally sprinkled throughout, sometimes two or three per sentence or noun/verb being described. Detail upon detail, to the point where I grew disinterested in the topic and greatly concerned with the effects of my teeth gnashing from frustration at all of these over the top descriptions. “Let’s get to the meat of things!” I would often mutter after crossing out the upteenth adjective.

And then there is enumeration: “Firstly…; Secondly…; and my personal favorite – or antonym thereof: “Last but not least…”

Not one of my students has failed to tell me that their teacher instructs them to that style of writing. Now I’m dumbfounded. My students are being instructed by my colleagues to produce these rapes against the very language they are sworn to teach?

The one ‘L’ed Helen bore that out. When I was coaching Tony for speech competition she instructed him to flower his speech with adjectives, the more the better. Horrified I countered her edict. Fortunately I was armed with a tome from our very own school library about giving speeches that, among other things specifically instructed successful speech givers avoided the use of excessive vocabulary. Along with my panicked counters I was able to show her in writing that such liberty with the language would be sure to cost us rather than aid us in earning any kind of good score. She let it go… that time. But I’m betting she still instructs all of her students to write flowery – nay, weedy! - prose.

Conundrum: I am sworn to teach English, and I aim to do it well. That means correctly. The poor students end up confused when their native-speaking English teacher tells them that such writing is a miscarriage of literature but they will lose points on their exam unless they perpetrate exactly that crime. Taking the issue up with Sam is not much help. He is sympathetic to my dilemma but cannot relent, for the judges will subtract points from any student’s composition that is not replete with useless, tiresome descriptions, catchphrases and clichés.

From there, the spectrum widens.

At restaurants: If one door greeter/hostess is good, then 6 must be better. Thus, when dining out, patrons must run the gauntlet of no fewer than 6 but sometimes up to 10 beautifully clad young women, all shouting “Welcome to our establishment” while gracefully bowing and waving diners in.

In stores: If one sales clerk is good then 4 must be better. When out shopping, even in big box stores I never have any trouble finding a helpful assistant. They hover around, ready to recommend a product, extol its virtues and show off its features. That applies to appliances as well as to toothpaste, shampoo or brand of noodles. In clothing stores the effect is doubled. Not only will the salesclerk help you find something to try on but they will band together and praise your new look. There might be a method to that particular madness. I always feel compelled to buy when faced with a dozen sales clerks who are all recommending.

In traffic: If one bus is good, then two buses must be better. More than once, to avoid a crowded bus I’ve let the first one go, knowing that, within a minute a second bus of the same line will pull up, virtually empty. It has become more or less a sport for me to find a seat on every bus I ride. Usually, I win. Sometimes I give up my seat – to an elder or a parent with his/her young asleep in their arms. That’s just to keep the game interesting.

With products: if a little glue is good, a lot must be better. Whereas stateside, it suffices to pull both sides of a package simultaneously in opposite directions, here one must take scissors to get to the goodies inside. I have tried repeatedly to open a package without scissors to no avail. Not only is the glue sealing the package such that the seam will not part but the packaging medium – plastic, paper or cardboard is of material so dense that it will not tear. Nothing short of a sharp knife or a pair of scissors will give you access to what you purchased.

This doesn’t apply (tee-hee!) to just packaging. The glue that binds labels and price tags onto products will not dissolve, even when soaked repeatedly in hot water. My drinking glasses and cooking pot, that I’ve owned since I moved here and all of which has been repeatedly soaked and washed in boiling hot water still bear their advertising labels and show no signs of peeling away.

It doesn’t stop there. When Mr. and Mrs. Wang came to dinner they brought with them several kilos of fruit – when a lone apple would have done the job, and a beautiful tin of biscuits – cookies. I’m never averse to any kind of sweet and soon, upon my return from the states wanted to nibble a nice cookie or two with my evening apple.

The metal tin was taped shut. That was to be expected. After cutting the tape (and leaving a nice gouge in the tin with my knife) I encountered a plastic film sealing the cookies in their beds. Again with the knife, carefully cutting along the edges to peel this film back, all the while knowing I was going to need the knife or scissors again. Each cookie, nestled in its well with other, like-flavored cookies was individually wrapped.  

Those cookies were the straw that broke the camel’s back. I decided to write an entry dedicated to this phenomenon.

Now I understand the Chinese custom of never opening a gift in front of the gift giver. In fact, the traditional way to receive a gift is to toss it to the side and not pay it any attention. The decorous Chinese will focus on his/her visitor instead. The first time I encountered this I was nonplussed. Did my gift recipient not like gifts? Was she ashamed at having nothing to gift back? Was she afraid to not express proper gratitude because of the language barrier?

No, no and again no. It is because everyone in China expects to have to tackle wrapping with anything from a blow torch to a bandsaw in order to access the actual gift. I’m guessing this woman must have been quite surprised that she could rip open my gift wrap without the benefit of any sharp implement. I do know that she was satisfied with the gift, even proud of it because, upon a subsequent visit to her home it was prominently displayed

I’m going to wrap this entry up… pardon the pun. Fortunately, you will not need anything sharp to open this up with. It is yours but for a few mouse clicks.



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