CHINA JOURNAL‹FRIDAY, MARCH 15 AND SATURDAY, MARCH 16, 2002
Yes, Virginia, there is pollution in China.
I might wish that, like Santa Claus, it would be only in the mind's eye, but unfortunately it is very much in the air. I have been trying to remember if the sun has ever been out so brightly since I've been here that I could not look at it. I don't think so. I've come to measure the pollution level for the day in the color of the sun. On good days it is like looking at a bright orange ball. Down the line a bit, it is a yellowish ball. Today it looked like a full moonŠwhite. On the worst days you don't see its shape at all, and it is not clouds that are hiding it. At 7:00 each morning I go out for my morning walk. I am still expecting a nice deep breath of early morning fresh airŠbut my deep breath stops about half way in when the taste and feel of chemicals hits my nostrils, throat and lungs. Bakersfield's air is like heaven compared to this. The day after the Lantern Day celebration of the New Year when all those fireworks had been set off the air was so full of sulphur that it was oppressive and almost painful. Normally it isn't that bad but there are occasions when it does happen. In the afternoon the wind tends to pick up and, riding home on the bike, actual pieces of dirt hit your face and your eyes. I notice that both at school and at home people are constantly dusting the surfaces of furniture. I also notice that my fingernails always need cleaning. The high use of coal seems to be a big contributing factor. It reminds me of my childhood in Indiana where the coal burning Lutheran Hospital smoke stacks about six blocks away were regularly dumping bits of black soot on Mother's laundry hanging on the line. Add to that the exhaust from older cars and buses which are apparently unregulated in a city with heavy traffic and the many little homes and businesses with charcoal burners. On top of that toss in the high number of men smoking when you get in an inside room, and you feel as if there is no escaping the assault on your lungs. It fascinates me, however, that I do not hear the Chinese coughing in response to the pollution. Just me. It must be that, like the Tibetan sherpas whose lungs have adjusted to the high altitudes, the Chinese lungs have adjusted to the pollution (even though lung cancer is a leading cause of death.) People talk about kissing the ground when they get to their home shores after a long time away. I think I'll be happy with a deep breath of fresh air.
Yesterday when I walked out at lunch hour I discovered that the side street off of the supermarket is hair cut row. I passed about four stands with people getting their hair cut. A ``stand'' in this case is nothing but a chair for the customer to sit in, a cover to wrap around them, and the hand trimmers and scissors of the trade. One man was cutting another man's hair, with one kibitzer. A lady was trimming a lady's hair, with about five women actively kibitzing. The cutest was a boy about one sitting in his mother's lap for a Yul Brunner head shave done by hand clippers. Like several others, she did not want their picture taken when I made a motion asking for permission. After the hair cut, she picked up the little boy and swung him around so we had a full view of his little bare bottom. He was wearing lovely knit pants which look complete in the front and are carefully shaped with a little knit border to leave the whole bottom bare.
Today I walked out from the house to see if I could find a Bank of China in the neighborhood. Of all the banks, only the Bank of China will change money. There have been no ATM machines in the neighborhoods I frequent and my latest camera purchase ate up my cash. I found a bank! Even though they didn't speak English we were getting along fine. I offered my ATM card, my checkbook, my passport, and a piece of paper I carry that is written in Chinese telling who I am, where I live, where I work, etc.. He got across to me that it would take four weeks to get the money if I used a card or wrote a check. Then he wrote the address of a Bank of China substation that could change the money. Mind you, I was at a Bank of China substation but apparently not the right level. I know you can do it at the airport, but I'm not there. Changing money and sending mail are both considerably easier if you are living in a tourist hotel! At that point I pulled out a traveler's check which he could cash on the spot; however the charge was $.15 which surprised me on something that is supposed to be an even trade.
The same type of situation happened when I was with Zhang Jie and Ding Bai trying to mail a packet of pictures. They never could figure out how to do it, so the pictures are still here.
On this morning's walk, Wang Yu Chun, the young master's degree candidate who speaks passable English and has joined us, invited Zhang Jie and me (and Ding Bai got included) to their house at noon for a ``memory'' lunch. She lives with her boyfriend Gao Meng, his sister Gao Lin, and her husband Bian Tao. It was Gao Lin and Bian Tao's sixth anniversary they were celebrating. What a delightful group of intelligent, thinking young people they are. All are in their twenties, working on master's degrees, holding jobs, and eager to improve their English. Their parents whom they miss live in their home villages and they see me as a good grandma figure, which I'm happy to be.
Their home is in the same apartment complex as the Zhangs' but not as large. It has three bedrooms, a bath that has a one piece washer/dryer, a small living area, and a two part kitchen. The first part of the kitchen has the sink, some counter space, some storage, and the refrigerator. The pattern for refrigerators seems to be that the whole bottom half is the freezer section which has three or four drawersŠvery handy. Beyond the first kitchen was the bay window area. In it was the gas two-burner stove with a built in shield that went around three sides, over the top, and part way down the front. It was translucent so that there was still light to work by. There was a built in vent going out the top. Since their cooking involves so much frying in the wok, the grease shield is a good protection for the walls. They had counter space about ten inches deep around the edge of the window and storage underneath. When we arrived, the cold appetizers were laid out. They served tea in paper cups, which means you can't even sip until it cools enough to hold the cup.
They let me watch the cooking process and showed me hints along the way. Bian Tao, whose wife says he is an excellent cook, did most of the small chopping with a rocking cleaver on a breadboard next to the sink. Gao Lin, who said she learned a lot of her cooking from her mother-in-law, manned the stove and the dough making. Dumplings are a trademark of Tianjin and we were going to all help make the dumplings. She mixed the dough (all mixing was done with two chopsticks held together in one hand.) While it was resting, she made the fillings for the dumplings, making a separate vegetarian batch for me for which she was kind enough to leave out the MSG and huge amount of salt even though they all felt the dumplings wouldn't be nearly as delicious. While everybody took turns at helping to put the dumplings together in the living room, Gao Lin sterilized the unusual form of tofu (that looked like a yellow washcloth) and the sea vegetables by cooking them briefly in boiling water. She seasoned the cucumber salad which Bian Tao had chopped. She fried three dishes in a row in the wok, piece by pieceŠthe frozen, uncooked, French fries which are the size of potato sticks (which is what they are called), the egg rolls, and the shrimp crackers. The shrimp crackers are those big puffy crisp things that look like a bloated potato chip. I've seen them already cooked but have never witnessed the process. She starts with quarter size pieces that look like thin, hardened gelatin, drops them one at a time into the hot oil, andŠvoilaŠin less than 10 seconds they curl, pop open, puff up, curl some more, and are ready to be taken out. Great entertainment.
It was probably 2:30 or 3:00 before we ate. The men had moved the table on which the dumplings had been made into the center of the room and placed chairs around. We ate and talked and ate some more. Zhang Jie and Ding Bai left for an English lesson a little before 4:00. I stayed on until about 5:15 and enjoyed a good conversation and a view of Gao Meng's pictures gathered on his business trips throughout China. The women had done most of the talking up to then. Both of them urged me to get the men to talk. When we had gotten started well (I wouldn't let them look to the women for translations), the ladies went off to the kitchen and the men and I had a good talk about electricity (Gao Men's job) and coal and coke ( Bian Tao's job). They enjoyed it too.
Those readers who are not interested in recipes can stop right here. I want to describe the dumpling making process for my own memory. Gao Lin made the dough purely by feel. She used wheat flour ground fine especially for dumplings and water. (I might experiment with both regular flour and pastry flour.) She mixed the dough with chopsticks (which seemed rather laborious) until it was ready to knead. I inspected the flour package and, so far as we can tell, it has no rising agent in itŠjust flour. After kneading the dough in the pan with one hand, she put a lid over it and let it rest for about ten minutes. It doesn't actually rise as much as it lets the grain be evenly moisturized and softened. Meanwhile she makes the filling. Hers had finely ground pork (Gimme Lean would work for the vegetarians), the ``wash cloth'' tofu, green onions, leeks, ginger root, sesame oil, a thick packaged soy sauce used in Tianjin, seasoning that I didn't recognize but she called pepper, a little sesame oil, and a little strong Balsamic type of vinegar. All these ingredients are chopped quite fine and mixed together with chopsticks. In the vegetarian version she included chopped tree ears.
Assembling the dumpling begins in the other room. The big ball of dough, about the size for one loaf of bread, is kneaded a few times in the bowl, again one handed. It is then picked up and, with a thumb, is formed into a doughnut. Keep kneading your way around this doughnut hanging in the air so that the circle gets larger and larger as the actual diameter of the dough itself gets smaller. When the dough in this now large doughnut is about the diameter of a big soft bread stick, break it open. With a one direction cross snap, break off pieces of dough about the size of a walnut in the shell. (Don't pull off these chunks which would stretch the dough.) Take each chunk, roll it into a ball between your palms, then give it one squeeze between the palms to flatten it. On a very lightly floured board, roll out each piece. The rolling pin is also the size and shape of a bread stick. Hold one chunk of dough down to the breadboard with the left hand. Roll the rolling pin over and back about a third of the way up the chunk. Rotate the piece slightly. Roll the pin again. (You never let go of the dough during this process.) Keep working your way around the chunk, which is now flattening out, until it is a very thin circle about 2 ½ to 3 inches in diameter. Now it is time to assemble the dumplings. Hold a flattened circle of dough in one palm. With chopsticks (or spoon) put a bit of the filling on the center of the dough. Fold one edge up to meet the other, forming a half circle. Pinch it together in the center two-thirds. Bring one open corner against the end of the pinched part. This forms two wings which are then folded to each other and pinched together. Do the same at the other corner. By now the pinched part forms a single arched edge. The secret is in now giving very hard pinches all along the way so that the dumplings won't fall apart in the water. Drop the dumplings into a pot of boiling water. Using a ladle with the back facing the direction of motion, circle around the pot to get the dumplings moving. (Do not aim the front of a ladle or spoon toward the dumplings so you don't cut them while trying to simply get them moving.) Cook the dumplings about ten minutes. Test by lifting one out of the water. Touch it lightly with one finger. If it springs back, just like a cake, it is done. Lift them out with a strainer spoon. They don't need to be rinsed or particularly kept warm. Serve with soy sauce if desired.
I ate very lightly at supper tonight after that feast this noon. A Bakersfield friend reminded me that in one of my fortune cookies at a Chinese New Year function just before I left Bakersfield, Confucius told me, ``Don't overeat. Overindulgence is bad for the mind and the body.'' I wonder if the Chinese he ate with ever put food on his plate.