Thursday, April 30, 2009

Chengdu Travels

The weekend of April 24-26th, the 3 girls flew out to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, where Judy was giving a couple talks at Sichuan University. The University treated us to several terrific meals of Sichuan food. We had already learned about their hot pot specialty, but were treated to some new variations. The talks kept us quite close to the university and its beautiful campus, full of greenery, occasional palm trees, and rickshaws that would give you a ride across campus for 3 kuai (about 40 cents). We were able to spend a half day at the Panda preserve at the outskirts of Chengdu. The panda center offered a beautiful landscape and more natural habitat than the Beijing zoo. We saw many pandas, including some young bears playing behind glass. We also enjoyed the lake that was stocked with large and plentiful goldfish. We bought bags of fish food and fed the fish that swarmed to the treats, flopping over each other in their eagerness.

Talking in China is Good for the Ego (Judy)

In mid-April, I went down to Chongqing to give a couple talks at Southwest University School of law. They were gracious hosts, taking me to Ciqikou Street to see the old section of Chongqing and enjoy the vibrant sights. Each city introduces an additional nuance of Chinese cuisine. I’m not sure the name for the banquet where there are dozens of toppings and sauces around the table, which you add to the dofu dish. Whatever its name, it was delicious!

When I arrived at the law school for my talk a large banner was displayed in front of the law school building with my name emblazoned in huge letters. (Suzhou University had my name and talk running on a large marquis in the front of the law school.) This is part of my 15 minutes of fame, so I’m intent on enjoying it to the max!

By the way, one photo has "Flat Andrew," who visited us from Atlanta for about three weeks. Flat Andrew traveled from Beijing, to Chongqing to Chengdu before heading back to the US. You can find more pictures of Flat Andrew on Facebook (Judy McMorrow).

The Glories and Challenges of Street Food (Rick)

I’ve been eating in small shops and street food for 8 months with no problems. The first week of April changed that. I got a small pancake sandwich (jian bing) and then smelled some meat – lamb or pork – so I bought 2 sticks for 5 Yuan (about 75 cents). Well, it attacked me for a week. I lost 12 pounds over 7 days. One night I got up 50 times – no exaggeration – which made a colonoscopy seem like a simple blood test. No more street food (at least meat) for me. Others had warned of this, but I found out the hard way.

No pictures for this post!

Opening Night Approaches

The Beijing Playhouse production of Romeo & Juliet is now in full dress rehearsals 5 nights a week. The preview for family, friends and media is Wed. May 6th, and opening night is May 8th. Several assistant directors work with each actor -- singing, dancing, sword fights, facial expressions, Elizabethan English, character development. Lord Capulet is now sprouting a handsome beard and carries himself with a more stately air, even at home. We can’t wait for opening night!

Vietnam: Girls Trip to Hanoi and First Impressions

On March 29th, the “girls” took a trip down to northern Vietnam for Elizabeth and Anna’s school break. (Lord Capulet had play practice.) We began our adventure with a 3+ hour flight from Beijing to Hanoi. We stayed at The Galaxy Hotel on the edge of the Old Quarter. What a vibrant, dynamic place! It was a bit overcast, so the pictures do not do justice to the life and activity around us. Motorcycles zoomed in an out, carrying young and old, tall and small. We saw grandmothers in suits and toddlers tucked between parents, almost all with helmets. Crossing the street was unnerving at first. The secret is to walk slowly and steadily, trying to make contact with the cycles zooming toward you. There was indeed a rhythm to the madness. Along the sidewalks folks would sit on small tables outside shops, conducting the activities of daily life – cooking, playing cards, talking. Straw cone hats were not just tourist items, but were actually worn by some to shade the sun and stop the rain.

The homes were tall and narrow. Apparently taxes are determined by the width of the buildings. Hmm - what other architectural influences result from tax policies? The architectural style also showed a French influence. At spots it look a bit like New Orleans. Our food choices included “pho” – Vietnamese noodles. After becoming quite comfortable with the Chinese Yuan, we needed to adapt to the Vietnamese dong, which is 17,000 dong to $1.

Among our stops in Vietnam was a trip to the water puppets, which is an art form that arose from the countryside. The puppet show was literally in water, with a story told in Vietnamese, accompanied by music. At the end the curtain came up to reveal the puppeteers standing in thigh-high water.

Vietnam: War Reminders

The Ho Chi Minh complex was closed during the days we visited Hanoi, so we spent more time exploring memorials of the US-Vietnam war. We also saw reminders of war with Japan and China and France, a clue to the strategic role of Vietnam. We passed an area with a crashed airplane strewn across the front of a large building and asked if we could stop. It was a B52 memorial where the Vietnamese had shot down a US plane. The girls found it interesting to walk around and touch airplane parts and bomb shells. I found it poignant and disturbing. So many, many lives on both sides were changed by this war.

We also went to the Hoa Lo prison, which is colloquially known as the “Hanoi Hilton,” where US POWs were held during the Vietnam War. Most of the display showed the poor treatment of Vietnamese prisoners by Japanese in earlier times. A few rooms were devoted to showing the relatively “good” treatment of US prisoners by the Vietnamese. We did not engage in any political discussion about the accuracy of the portrayal. We asked our guide, Twen, what the Vietnamese people think of Americans. We were surprised that he was surprised at that question. For young people, the Vietnam War is a historical event. The next day he reported that he had asked his father that question. The father’s response: “If a neighbor comes and kills one of your family, then returns 10 years later and apologizes, how would you react? Everyone reacts differently.” We also saw an older man begging in the train station. Twen said that there are many such older men who suffered mental impairments from what people believe was Agent Orange. We know that if we went to areas of the US near military hospitals we might see similar sights. The tools of war do not take sides.

Vietnam: Food Creations

Once again we found some creative food items in Vietnam. We were not sure about the appeal of the coke cans with chicken parts. (See photo.) Up in Sapa Valley there were sugar canes for sale. Folks would purchase the sugar cane, peal down strips and eat the interior while walking, like a banana. It looked quite appealing. The chickens, however, did not….

Vietnam: Sapa Valley and our “Soft Trek”

We took an overnight train from Hanoi to Sapa Valley in the far north of Vietnam. We arrived at 5:30 am to pouring rain, and experienced a couple downpours during our 3 days there even though it is not rainy season. Our base was in Sapa, a town tucked in the mountains. Women in colorful dresses from the Black Hmong people would walk through town selling handicrafts.

During our 3 days we went to several different villages of the Black and Red Hmong people and of the Dzao. Because this was a “soft” trek, a van took us to the edge of the village and we would then walk for a couple hours. It is always a question whether tourists are worth the disruption. How would we feel if strangers walked through our town taking pictures? The quid-pro-quo was their desire to sell us souvenirs. At one village about 15 women were following us with their baskets on their back.

The scenery for these 3 days was like walking through a calendar – stunning beyond description. Mountains, karsts, rice paddies, water buffalo grazing along the road. At the edge of one village was a small cave with stalactites. Another village ended at a waterfall. On the second day we took a 3 hour van ride to a more remote town for the weekly Hmong market. There were very few tourists compared to the Hmong, so we received a few stares. In addition to clothing, chicks, and household items, we also discovered we could buy hashish (“no thank you”).

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Girl Scout Cookies - Expatriate Riot


Beijing Police report a small riot broke out among area expatriates in the Haidian District of Beijing last Saturday. Apparently, an American family received a box of what are called “Girl Scout cookies.” These highly addictive substances sent an odor out that quickly spread over a 2 mile area. Crazed Americans began following the scent and quickly descended upon the unprepared campus.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” reported Wen Ximing, a law student at Renmin. “Americans started running across the square in front of Mingde hall.” Wen followed the group as they quickly converged on the park in front of Building Yiyuan 3, where the Reilly family was holding a picnic that included the addictive substances. “Adults were pushing aside children, trying to grab these small chocolate covered cookies.”

Rick Reilly, a statuesque man with a white beard, shook his head in amazement. Apparently Mr. Reilly has avoided addiction to the cookies. “But my two daughters wept when they received the package. My wife was out of town when it arrived. By the time she returned two days later the cookies were almost depleted.” Reilly accepts that the family made a mistake by allowing the remaining cookies into public view. He apologized deeply and sincerely “for allowing these addictive substances to be out in public.”

Reilly’s wife, Judy, and their daughters Elizabeth (almost 12) and Anna (10) were unavailable for comment. Witnesses report the three Reilly women curled up in fetal positions once the cookies were gone.

The cookies were a gift of the Chivian family of Newton, Massachusetts. Efforts to contact the Chivian family for comment were unsuccessful. The Public Security Bureau is investigating whether Chivians broke any international or domestic laws by sending addictive substances into China. The Chinese government reports that they are also preparing an official complaint to the US Embassy. “We are unsure at this point whether the incident will have any lasting negative effects on Sino-US relations,” stated vice-deputy Wang Jongwen.