Sunday, September 11, 2011

Travel Cuisine

The best part of my short trip to Montreal was the food. I had heard plenty about the cuisine before I left on the train--there was even a recent episode of Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Food that featured food I didn't consider bizarre. I didn't dine at the restaurant that serves seal meat, mostly because it was a bit out of my price range.

My first planned destination was recommended by many people--Schwartz's Deli. I was skeptical about eating a pastrami sandwich (known in Quebec as smoked meat) in Montreal--could it really be better than the delis of Manhattan? Based on the people making the recommendations, I decided to give it a try. I figured since it was a tourist destination it'd be rather expensive, and I planned to spend something similar to the prices in Katz's Deli. I didn't realize how small Schwartz's is--I had to stand in line outside for 15 minutes to get a seat at the counter. It still sounds like blasphemy to me, but it was one of the best pastrami sandwiches I've ever had (although I was disappointed that they didn't have spicy mustard)--because it's smoked, it wasn't as wet as the pastrami at Katz's, but it was still amazingly tender with a lot of flavor. With a soda and pickle, my dinner only came to $11. At that price I was almost tempted to order a second sandwich.

On my final day in Montreal, I made a point of trying Restaurant Vallier on Rue McGill. I heard they specialized in duck, which is lacking on most menus in my area. Unfortunately, I visited during a heatwave, and I walked around town a little more than I anticipated (I regret not renting a Bixi bike). When I arrived at the restaurant, I was exhausted and sweating. I drank half a dozen glasses of water before my meal arrived. I was drawn to the shepherd's pie with duck confit, which came with a sweet and tangy mango sauce that mixed beautifully with the mashed potatoes and duck. I was happily stuffed. However, I didn't feel that well walking back to the metro station. I went back to my hotel, showered, and passed out for a couple hours before going out again.

The final meal that I had to try in Montreal was poutine. I heard people describe it to me, but I never made the connection of what it really was. Coming from north Jersey, I can describe it as a variation of disco fries. Instead of loads of melted cheese on top of fries, it had cheese curds that only melted slightly. Also, the poutine that I tried had some rather soggy fries (that should have only been a result of the gravy, but they were just bad fries).

Friday, August 05, 2011

The Train to Montreal

A couple weeks ago I took a few days away from the NYC area. I decided to try Amtrak for the first time--tickets to Montreal cost about the same a driving (possibly a little less with gas prices), and I wouldn't have to pay for parking. The only downside to taking the train is that it takes almost twice as long as driving--the schedule estimates 11 hours, whereas driving would be about six.

The bright side of taking the train to Montreal is the scenery. On the way out of New York City, there's a great view of the Palisades across the Hudson River. Further along the tracks, the train slowly snakes along the shore of Lake Champlain. It's beautiful, but painfully slow.

For some reason, on the way out of the U.S. we were stopped by U.S. customs for a half hour before our stop at Canadian customs. Our train still managed to be close to on time. On the way back, U.S. customs took two hours. Add to that some unscheduled stops for a fax and responding to said fax, plus signal problems, and we were two and a half hours late arriving at Penn Station (I got back to my apartment just after midnight).

Fortunately, I managed to get a decent amount of reading done on the train. I also met a few friendly passengers to talk with in both directions. I just wish I could sleep on any form of transportation (next time I should take some nighttime medicine to knock me out).

If there was ever an argument for a high speed rail line in the U.S., I found it. There is no reason a train should travel at less than 30 miles per hour for extended stretches when there is no other train traffic on the tracks. One curious note about Amtrak is that while the NYC-Montreal train takes about 11 hours to travel about 360 miles, it only takes 12 1/2 hours to travel to Toronto, which is almost 600 miles. Sounds like Amtrak needs a more direct route to Montreal.

Friday, July 15, 2011

My 7 Links

This post was forced on me by Jen at Solo Travel Girl (I wasn't actually forced, she asked politely). I agreed to this because Jen has been a long-time reader of this blog and we met for dinner and drinks in Chinatown last summer. This post is the idea of TripBase (but not all participating blogs are travel related). Unfortunately, I have go back through six years of posts to find seven that belong in this list. I also broke the rules and posted more than seven links.

My Most Beautiful Post:

I have a few posts I could call beautiful. I suppose the stories of dating Jia or our wedding would rank up there. However, the best memories I have with my wife are from our trips--she's been my favorite travel partner since we began dating. Though it wasn't the most comfortable of trips, our tour through Jiuzhaigou was beautiful, and it is one of my fondest memories of China.

Most Popular Post:

This is a difficult one. Looking at six years of traffic to this site, I probably get the most consistent traffic on a review of Peter Hessler's Oracle Bones. However, I've decided to look at one-time popularity instead. Oddly enough my most popular post was a simple description and photos of a t-shirt Jia had made for our first anniversary. I got noticed by a few people and passed around. It generated a few thousand hits in a few days. Unfortunately, that shirt is not as funny in the US.

Most Controversial Post:

Do I really generate any controversy on this blog? I suppose a have a few that could at least be considered thought-provoking. I forgot I even wrote this post about internet censorship in the run up to the 20th anniversary of the incident in Beijing that never really happened (no, really, China Daily is now calling it a myth).

Most Helpful Post:

Kind of like the controversial post, I don't know how helpful I am. There were a couple posts on the mentality of students in English classes in China that might be helpful to prospective ESL teachers. There's one about the work ethic of some students in my graduate classes and another about the similarities between spoiled American and Chinese students.

Most Surprisingly Successful Post:

I had a post about the Beijing Olympic English handbook, from which I had to teach 40 English-speaking police officers in Bao'an district, that got picked up by Global Voices. Of course, I wasn't the first person to write about the handbook, but I didn't know it at the time. I had three posts about this, but this was the one that got picked up. I happen to think part 1 of the series was better.

Most Disappointing Post because it didn't get enough attention:

Everyone needs to show this old post some love and attention, otherwise it might turn to a life of drugs and crime. I'm a little disappointed that my post on the Li River cruise didn't get more attention. I think I'm going to cry...OK, I won't, but you should still read the story--it includes a lot of photos.

Finally...The Post I'm Most Proud Of (you know, TripBase should've looked into parallelism of the category headings--I tried fixing the others, but got lazy on this one): 

This is too difficult to choose. Therefore, I'd like to honor the memory of Danny with my post about the first time I visited his restaurant in Guangzhou (back when he still called it Danny's Bagel and not Danny's Italian-American Restaurant).

My nominations for blogs to participate in this little project are Far West China and One Man Bandwidth,

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Cosmetic Reward

The National College Entrance Exam is finished in China. It's a period of time that is full of stress for millions of Chinese students hoping to earn a place in a decent university. Unlike the SATs in the US, the Chinese students only get one shot at their test. They also have to cover more than just language and math--there's plenty of Communist philosophy and history that they need to write about. This exam causes so much stress that local governments have put together stress-relief programs for students to prevent suicides that have been fairly common in the past.

I may have not been under nearly as much stress as Chinese students preparing for the national exam, but my parents also didn't feel the need to reward me for doing well (they did, however, pay for my undergraduate degree--thanks, Mom and Dad). I had two classmates in high school who scored 1600 on the SATs, and their parents gave them nothing for their achievement. 

So, what do Chinese parents do for their children who score high marks on this exam? According to the Shenzhen Daily, they pay for cosmetic surgery. And it's not just the girls who want to look more attractive; plenty of boys are opting for liposuction (and yes, I do recall seeing many overweight students in Shenzhen).

Fortunately, there is some sense being spoken in China about teenagers seeking plastic surgery. There is a discussion in the article about psychological effects and consultations before committing to the procedures. My favorite quote from a doctor was this: "Blindly imitating a celebrity can only harm yourself." More people need to heed this advice, and not just in the case of cosmetic surgery.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Peaceful Fields

 Our trip to Fujian is still one of my favorite vacations, even if it only lasted a few days. After spending three years in the ever-expanding city of Shenzhen, it was calming to be away from the crowds. There were a few times that we were confronted with crowds--when I stepped off the bus, a group of motorcycle taxi drivers pushed themselves against me and shouted "taxi" as loud as they could, forcing me to shove a few out of the way and run for cover in a storefront that I didn't realize was also the entrance to our hotel.

After that shocking encounter in the middle of what seemed to be nowhere, our journey quieted. Jia and I took a stroll down the road and through fields that were devoid of other tourists (and even few locals). Once we stepped away from the center of town that housed our hotel, two convenience stores, a restaurant with no menu, and a mobile phone shop, we were struck by silence. We didn't want to head back to our hotel, but we were forced to do so as the sun was setting and we had no light to find our way. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Summer Feeling

It's been a long summer so far, and it just started. I've been working at the tutoring center at the college, but it's rather slow. I'm averaging one student each day--that's one hour of tutoring for a six-hour shift. Fortunately, this leaves me with plenty of time to catch up on reading. So far, I've read Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns, Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground, and Rudy Rucker's Spaceland. I wasn't impressed with any of them, though at least A Thousand Splendid Suns was culturally intriguing. Now, I'm reading through Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, which is far superior to anything I've read recently.

While I drift off in literary wonderland at work, I'm also caught up in my plans for a summer holiday (or lack thereof). Jia is heading off for another business trip to China, combined with a trip to see her family and friends. Unfortunately, she'll return before I have my full vacation from the college (I say "unfortunately" because I managed to find a semi-affordable flight to China during my vacation). Now I have to decide if I take a trip during my time off or if I take a few three-day weekends away from New Jersey. Of course, I can still hope that someone will send me on a travel writing assignment to China.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Technical Plagiarism

Plagiarists always think they're smart enough to get away with stealing the ideas of others. When I taught at the graduate school in Shenzhen I caught plenty of students plagiarizing their assignments that shouldn't have taken them long to complete on their own (I wasn't even asking them to do any research). And those students were shocked when I could identify their work as plagiarized in less than five minutes (with 300 students, I couldn't afford to spend more than that much time proving plagiarism).

In the last few years, China has shown concern for the amount of academic plagiarism, especially at the graduate level. There have even been a few professors accused of academic fraud. To curb the flow of stolen academic essays, universities introduced anti-plagiarism software specifically for students writing their dissertations. This software sounds similar to what is used at some American universities--it identifies how much, if any, of the work is copied from someone else's published work (I'm not sure how this works when considering quotations and paraphrases). Apparently, Chinese universities require the percent of plagiarized work in a dissertation to be less than 25 percent of the total work.

When an institution places such an obstacle in front of students, there will be those who will find a way around it. Now, an innovative software manufacturer has developed another program to avoid the anti-plagiarism software--the anti-anti-plagiarism software. The software doesn't really sound much different from the original program--it tells students what was plagiarized in their work. It's easy enough for students to rewrite the work that the program identifies. Of course, the cost of this software (and the time it takes to revise the dissertation) could be avoided if the students just do the research and properly use and cite their sources.

Over the last year, I have spent plenty of time with students at the writing center reviewing paraphrasing and citing sources. Fortunately, most students who visit the writing center simply don't know how to paraphrase or cite--they were never taught these academic skills in high school. Unfortunately, not enough students put forth the effort to learn how to avoid plagiarism (or they just don't care).

Friday, May 20, 2011

Environmental Magic

Throughout China I came across amusing signs. Some of them were amusing for the misuse of English and others were just entirely confusing. There were even a few hilarious ones in Chinese (my favorite is still the "Stupid chicken, duck" sign).

At one park in Shenzhen (it's testing my memory to think of which park I visited about five years ago), I came across this sign. The English translations were fine and the map was easy to follow. However, they chose some odd pictures to use as the map key.

I wish I hadn't found this sign on the way out of the park as I would've liked to see what the mobile ecological toilet was like. Why would an ecological toilet evoke an image of a rabbit in a magician's hat? And if it were truly a mobile toilet, why would it stay in one place on the map? I also wonder why the amusement facilities are represented by a weight lifter--I don't recall seeing any exercise equipment.

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Friday, May 06, 2011

Semester Endings

The semester is just about over. At least my classes are finished for spring. And I don't have to deal with final exams because the department grades all the essay exams to ensure consistency throughout the courses (we have a lot of adjunct instructors in the ESL department). I have discovered just how difficult it is for students to pass the level that I teach--across the level, only about 25% pass the final, and the rest have to repeat the course. This semester, about a third of my students were repeating the class (two of them for the third time). Fortunately, most of my repeat students passed the final.

Overall, it was a good semester with only a few bumps in the road. I thought one particular student would give me a difficult time through the semester. He was a repeat student with a lot of potential. Unfortunately, he could be a little stubborn and occasionally tried to control the class. He was in danger of failing because he didn't do any of the homework, and I gave him one final chance--he had to write eight essays in a week. He came in the following week with all his work done (and it looked suspiciously good). When it came time for an in-class essay, I saw that his writing improved exponentially (my suspicion dissipated). Somehow, everything I taught showed up in his writing after one week of extreme pressure. He easily passed the final exam.

One thing I enjoy about teaching ESL at a community college is the stories I hear from students. I tend to hear more personal stories while tutoring at the writing center, but my students in class enjoy sharing as well. One of my favorites to talk with at the writing center was an Indonesian nun. She was in a level below the class I taught and she had some difficulty with grammar. Every week she came in to work, she immediately asked questions about specific points of grammar--she knew what she needed to do to improve. Her greatest obstacle for passing the class was that the essay questions are geared toward a wider range of students and she doesn't share the same experiences (asking a nun about television shows is rather unfair).

Now that the semester is over and I don't have to teach for summer, I can enjoy reading again. I'm on my third book in three weeks. I was finally able to get around to Yan Lianke's Dream of Ding Village. It's a great translated work of fiction about the blood-selling scandal in Henan province that infected thousands with HIV and AIDS. It focuses on one particular village devastated by the disease. Although there is no overt criticism of the government, the book is banned in China. I will write a more in-depth review of the novel for Terracotta Typewriter.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Farewell Bagels

Over the weekend I received news that Danny, my favorite restaurateur in Guangzhou, passed away. No trip to the Guangdong provincial capital was complete without a stop at Danny's Italian Restaurant (formerly Danny's Bagel).

During my first year in Shenzhen, my brother sent me an email. One of his clients had a friend who made bagels in Guangzhou. This was music to a New Jersey native's ears (even though I was reading it)--I had spent the previous two years in Colorado without any decent bagels. It was another year before I finally made the trip to Guangzhou to eat at Danny's.

On my second solo trip to Guangzhou, to obtain useful information to apply for Jia's tourist visa (of course, the consulate provided no useful information), I made a point of having a bagel for lunch before heading to the consulate. Fortunately, Danny's is housed in a furniture shopping mall nearby. At least, I thought it was nearby. Turns out a thirty minute walk through Guangzhou in late spring is a painful reminder of the oppressive heat and humidity of the region.

I arrived at the Home Garden Mall a bit early. Danny's wasn't opened yet, so I found a sofa--the staff gave me awkward looks as I read a book. When I finally got into the restaurant for my bagel, I was greeted by Danny himself. It was nice to meet another New Jersey native. And he gave me some advice for dealing with the consulate. Although our conversation was brief, his affable personality led me to return on every trip through Guangzhou. And each time I visited, I tried something different from his menu.

We celebrated Jia's tourist visa with dinner at Danny's. He talked about some of the things he missed about New Jersey--he loved Harrold's Deli, and I brought back one of their cheesy napkins with deli Yiddish just for him. On that trip I had a chicken Parm sandwich that made me homesick--it was just like those I used to get at home.

Even on our final trip to Guangzhou we stopped in for lunch. It was only a short time before we moved to the US, and we wanted to see a few friends. Even though the restaurant closed between lunch and dinner, Danny stood around talking with us for two hours.

Since moving back to the US, I kept in touch with Danny. Every now and then I'd get an email asking how everything was in New Jersey or updating me on the goings on of Guangzhou. He especially liked to gloat when the northeast got excessive amounts of snow and he was in a much warmer climate.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Overlooking the Palace

It's been two years since I had a real vacation. Of course, now I have more expenses and I have to save for a more expensive vacation this summer in Xinjiang, which will be even more expensive since the airlines keep raising the fares (donations are always welcome). The lack of travel has put me in the habit of browsing my past vacation photos, which is quite time-consuming.

I always seem to stop on my photos of Wat Arun. It's difficult to find a bad photo of this structure. It was one of my favorite destinations in Bangkok because it wasn't crowded and it provided such amazing views of the city and the Grand Palace. Both times I visited Wat Arun the weather was nice, which made the views a bit better.

Monday, February 21, 2011

An Idiot Abroad

I'm so happy to have On Demand (only the free service part, I don't pay for anything extra). Last week I came across episodes of "An Idiot Abroad," Ricky Gervais' new show. The show is a bit of a practical joke--sending Ricky's friend Karl to exotic locales to experience other cultures. Of course, the entertainment comes from the fact that Karl is not adventurous in any sense of the word--he even packs his own snacks.

I was drawn into the show because the first episode sent Karl to Beijing and some nearby locations. As a first trip outside of England, China is a shock. My greatest source of amusement was watching Karl's reaction to the local food--especially as he watches a girl enjoy a scorpion on a stick and a man chow down on chicken embryos. Unlike Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern, Karl doesn't encounter stinky tofu. On his trip along the Great Wall, he gets to watch his host kill and cook frogs. He tries to politely decline the delicacy, but is force-fed by his host. I must admit I do enjoy the taste of frog, especially the Sichuan/Chongqing-style dishes, but I also find the small bones annoying.

It isn't all torture for Karl; he seems to enjoy some of the travel. He gets some amusement out of his Shaolin kung fu training. Of course, that is followed by some traditional Chinese therapy involving fire on his body (I'm convinced that anything that is supposedly good for you in China is painful).

In other episodes, Karl travels through Israel, Jordan, Mexico, India, and Egypt. Surprisingly, the most unusual foods he encounters are in Mexico and Egypt. In Mexico, he eats some wasp larva with some chili at a Mayan village. And in Egypt, he eats some animal testicles and other organs before his host tells him what's in the dish.

After going through the first five episodes, I'm waiting for the new ones. I don't know where they'll send Karl next or how Ricky Gervais will try to torture him.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Practice

Now that the new semester is in full swing, it's difficult for me to get out for Mandarin Monday events in the city--working 9-6 with only a 15 minute break is a bit tiring (good thing I only do that once a week). Fortunately, I have found another way to practice my Mandarin.

While working at the campus writing center I found three Chinese students who plan to attend regular tutoring sessions. I'm  now getting in the habit of greeting these students in Mandarin and having brief conversations with them before they begin their sessions.

Yesterday, I found that I hadn't properly introduced myself to two of the students. After asking one about what she did for Spring Festival, she inquired where I was from and how I came to learn Chinese. I hadn't had to answer those questions in over two years.

Having these students around regularly should help motivate me to study more.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Without a Bang

It's difficult keeping track of lunar holidays in the US. In China, the fireworks would've started days ago, but I don't have those cracks and bangs to remind me that Spring Festival is here. It just doesn't feel like Chinese New Year without fireworks being set off haphazardly after drinking Tsingtao and baijiu.

Reading this morning's Twitter feed while sitting around because the college has a delayed opening due to icy conditions, I was reminded of the tradition of watching the CCTV Spring Festival Spectacular. The commentary can be quite amusing--especially when it comes time for the singing and dancing minorities portion of the show. Instead of watching the show, I attended a party with the Mandarin Monday group in New York. Part of the festivities was a Kung Fu demonstration that included very few Chinese--there was one large, older white guy who was surprisingly agile.

Since the weather is terrible and we have to work, Jia and I will have more of a celebration this weekend with a dinner out at Grand Sichuan.

I still miss the fireworks (at least one night of them, not the two weeks that follow).

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Strange Crimes

The run up to Spring Festival is always filled with minor crimes. Every year the Chinese government warns people to be careful with their valuables when traveling. This year, there are some unusual crimes around Shenzhen.

Shenzhen Daily reports that two teenagers stole valuables from travelers' luggage on a Bao'an airport shuttle bus. One of the teenagers was small enough to fit into a suitcase that was stored in the luggage compartment of the bus. He then crawled out and rummaged through the other luggage on board.

In another case, customs officials seized 2300 kilograms of smuggled seafood. There were no details as to what type of seafood--it could have been endangered animals, but that would be more likely reported. Why would anyone smuggle seafood into a region known for its seafood?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Mandarin Meet Up

Not long after I moved to Jersey City, I started using A few friends in town used it to plan events and meet new people. Of course, I rarely attended the local events. However, I also found a Mandarin Monday group in New York that seemed to have regular meetings.

The first couple times I went to the meetings, it was in a large restaurant by the Empire State Building. Unfortunately, the food was rather bland and expensive. But, the people were fun to talk with, even if some of them spoke little to no Mandarin. As I began teaching at the community college, I couldn't attend the meetings in the city. Or, more accurately, I was too tired to take the PATH into the city for an expensive dinner.

Since then, they group has changed restaurants a few times. Now, they meet at Great Sichuan (not to be confused with my favorite Chinese restaurant in Jersey City, Grand Sichuan), which serves much better food at a cheaper price than the original meet up restaurant.

Last night was one of the more interesting meetings of the group. It was only 10 people (we had more than 20 last week). It was mostly an older crowd that didn't speak much Chinese, but they provided some interesting conversation. One attendee spoke with me about visiting Xinjiang--he had visited the province in the late '80s. Another one got to see Shenzhen from the Hong Kong border in the years just prior to Deng Xiaoping, when the city was still a collection of fishing villages with a population of about 20,000.

Now that classes begin again next week, I hope I can find the time and energy to attend more of these meet ups. It might provide more motivation to study.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Smiles in the Trees

I know this photo is a bit of a cliche on travel blogs, but it's still cool. The banyan grew around the Buddha head in the ruins of Ayutthaya, Thailand. Even without the Buddha head, banyans are amazing trees to photograph--I have quite a few from my travels, including a rather large one in Yangshuo that was turned into a cheesy tourist attraction.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Working for the New Year

The New Year is looking good so far. Granted, it's a very young year and I haven't done much yet. I'm looking forward to getting back to work--I'm a little bored with all this time off. And that blizzard before New Year's and subsequent snow removal (or lack thereof) didn't help. Even though I'll have plenty of work at the college, I'm continuing my pursuit of more freelance work to subsidize our summer trip to China.

Of course, I have found some useful things to do with my free time. I managed to finally put together the seventh issue of Terracotta Typewriter, which includes the work of a writer who was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize. It's hard to believe that I started the website two years ago and it's still alive. I'm pleased with all the messages of support I've received--it's one of the reasons I continue to work on it. It's probably time that I find someone to help with the production--regular readers have probably noticed that I never kept up with the Mandarin Monday posts (or any regular blog posts on that site).

Friday, December 31, 2010

Warmly Welcome 2011

It's been a pretty good year. Jia and I both found new jobs this past year, and are living much more comfortably than at the beginning of the year. We expect everything to go a little smoother in the new year.

My first New Year holiday in China was spent in Guangzhou. Jia and I had been dating less than month and decided to take two days outside Shenzhen. Seeing as I only knew a handful of words in Chinese, Jia was my tour guide. She took me through the main sites--the Tomb of the Nanyue King, Guangxiao Temple, Chen's Folk Art Museum (where I purchased a miniature Statue of Liberty because it seemed so out of place), and Xiu Park.

Guangxiao Temple was a highlight of the trip. It was my first experience in a Buddhist temple. Unfortunately, when we revisited Guangxiao before leaving China, the temple was undergoing renovations and much of it was closed off. The first visit was much more memorable.